Review: Bad Education — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Hugh Jackman stars as charismatic school superintendent Frank Tassone, who presided over the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in U.S. history.

Still from the film Bad Education

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Bad Education (On HBO)

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

Rating: TV-MA

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano

Writer: Mike Makowsky

Director: Cory Finley

 

Hugh Jackman has made just four movies in the past three years, and with each passing performance he is proving himself to be perhaps the most multifaceted actor working today.

Think about it: in 2017’s Logan he rewrote the book on bringing authentic intensity to a super hero character. The following year his Broadway musical chops singlehandedly saved The Greatest Showman. A few months later he triumphed as the brilliant yet infuriatingly haughty, self-destructive presidential candidate Gary Hart in The Front Runner.

There’s a touch of Hart in Frank Tassone, the guy Jackman plays in his latest film, Bad Education. For one thing, both men are real-life figures who plummeted from rock star-like status to pariah in less time than it took for them to comb their perfectly coiffed hair. And both were brought to their ends largely by their misplaced sense of indestructability.

But while Hart merely took himself down, Tassone was something of a human neutron bomb. As superintendent of schools in the tony Long Island bedroom community of Roslyn during the early 2000s, Tassone was lionized for raising the formerly middling school district to national elite status. But his legion of fans didn’t realize he was also presiding over the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in U.S. history.

What did Frank Tassone know, and when did he know it? Peeling the layers off that onion is just one of the great delights of Mike Makowsky’s script. What’s more, Makowsky, who wrote last year’s utterly brilliant but little-seen I Think We’re Alone Now, was born to write this screenplay: He was a middleschooler in Roslyn at the time his superintendent was led off in cuffs.

Jackman is in full can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him mode as Tassone, blinding students, faculty, and board of education members alike with his dazzling charm, impossibly chiseled features, and a smile that could guide the space shuttle in for a landing. One of the fun tricks of Bad Education is how Tassone checks off every box in everyone’s fantasy of the Hero Educator, and then some: He has memorized the names and interests of each kid in the district. He leaves his office door open to absolutely anyone with a problem. He even leads a community book club.

So what if Frank’s suits seem a tad too well tailored? And who cares that he’s obviously been having some work done on his face? And where does he live? Somewhere in Manhattan? Eh — better to focus on those SAT scores.

Everyone is happy until Frank’s top deputy (Allison Janney, cinema’s reigning supporting MVP) gets caught using district funds to redo her beach house — and by the way, how can she afford a beach house in the first place? Before long a reporter on the high school’s newspaper (doe-eyed Geraldine Viswanathan) is nosing through boxes of receipts as the administrators look warily over her shoulder.

By the time we’re into the second half of the film, the masks begin to slip. Even as the millions of missing dollars add up, the school board scrambles to hide the larceny lest the school’s reputation suffers — and local real estate values plunge. Ray Romano is in fine form as the school board president, at first struggling with his conscience yet ultimately deciding to let the whole thing slide.

To a point, that is. Eventually even those who didn’t gain one dime from the scam find their lives and reputations heading to permanent detention.

Second-time director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) deftly walks that caper film tightrope, allowing us to enjoy the company of scoundrels while never asking us to identify with them. He falters only once, near the final fadeout, when Frank finds himself face-to-face with a helicopter mom who has been dogging him from the start, demanding her son’s placement in an advanced course where he clearly does not belong.

With his upbeat, can-do reputation in tatters, Frank finally tears into the woman the way he’s clearly always wanted to. He berates her as one of “the people who trot their poor children out like race horses at Belmont.”

“Do you remember the teachers who held you by the hand? Do their names escape you? Are their faces a blur? You might forget, but we don’t. We never forget. Ever.”

It’s a fantastic speech, and Jackson seems ready to explode with anguish as he delivers it. But Frank doesn’t deserve that speech. Because while he may never have forgotten his students, he’s absolutely forgotten what it means to be accountable to them.

More fitting is the final shot: Frank’s face fills the screen, deep wrinkles finally claiming the territory he defended so fiercely for so long with other people’s money. He tries to flash that winning grin, the one that fooled everyone…even himself. But it doesn’t stay. It can’t stay.

In the end, the face of Frank Tassone is a skull wrapped in thin, nearly transparent skin.

Featured image: Scene from Bad Education (HBO)

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