Bad Education, the newest film based on a true story from HBO starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, snuck up on me. Every once in a while a movie comes around where I go in with reasonable expectations, as I try to do with most films, and those expectations are blown out of the water. This is one such film. Every second of this movie is fascinating and riveting, containing performances from its two leads that dominate every scene as only two masters of their craft could do. Director Cory Finley and writer Mike Makowsky are at the top of their game here, and both should have very long careers ahead of them. This is an astonishing true story that shows the raw impact an event of this size can cause on both the citizens that fall victim and the perpetrators of this wild scandal.
The audience is introduced to Frank Tassone, the superintendent of the Roslyn school district who is beloved by all: teachers, parents, students, peers, etc. He even knows every single student’s name in the entire district because he cares — he used to be a teacher himself, so he both empathizes with the students and knows the struggles of working in the classroom. He has built a well-oiled machine around him that works for everyone involved. Roslyn High School is the number four high school in the country when it comes to college admissions, they are planning an expansion bridge on the school called the “Skywalk,” and a new budget plan is sure to make things even more prosperous for the upcoming school year. However, a wrench is thrown into this perfection when the assistant superintendent (Janney) is found to be using money from her school credit card to pay for her personal expenses (vacations, pool repair, home supplies). This initially seems like a small road block they must overcome, but after a school newspaper reporter(Geraldine Viswanathan) investigates the situation further, it turns out that the corruption is much deeper and more widespread than initially realized.
This plot seemed interesting enough to me going in, but the impact this scandal would have on me as a viewer didn’t hit me until I got into the characters, and they are introduced beautifully by Finley and Makowsky. Tassone is immediately presented to the audience as a presentable, hardworking and down-to-Earth man who truly cares about the students when others do not. During the film’s first thirty minutes, the writer makes sure the audience is fully onboard Tassone’s cause. After all, he’s a good man who means well, right? However, once the second half arrives, everything the movie presents seems like a facade, and it is hard to know what to believe. This betrayal is devastating and hard to watch, but it is also riveting and keeps your eyes glued to the screen because of how absurd and eye-opening the events are. Everyone in America has encountered the public school system in some fashion, which makes it hard to believe that someone could take advantage of taxpayer money just so they can go on more vacations to the Caribbean and get away with it. By the end, this story will make viewers rethink everything they know about the public school system, the way teachers are treated by students and parents, and the way in which people can often be putting on a positive facade to hide something far more questionable.
In the acting department, both Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney knock their respective roles out of the park. Jackman delivers what might be the best performance of this year so far (it’s between him and Elizabeth Moss from The Invisible Man). He commands the screen and the audience with every single frame he is on screen. Jackman’s natural charisma and likability makes him ease into the energetic and concerned man he must play for the first half, but when the script (and the true story) demands he must flip into a different person, he does so effortlessly. He never becomes a person that is impossible to empathise with through this madness; even though his motives are questionable late in the movie, somehow it is easy to see his valid reason for carrying out these illegal actions. Near the end is when Jackman hits his stride — every scene during the final thirty minutes starring him is breathtakingly brilliant, especially one where he is talking with a mother and son in his office right after things start to get heavy (you’ll know the scene when you get there).
Janney commands the second act of the movie, where her character is found to have stolen over $250,000 dollars from the school system. She not only embodies the school official who believes she is better than everyone else and cannot be touched (everyone knew one in high school and will recognize this character), but she manages to play both a woman who is angry at the situation she finds herself in and a mother who is terrified at the position in which her family has been placed. There are multiple scenes in a row — one in her office, one in a tightly cramped office room with the rest of her coworkers, one in her spacious house with her family — where Janney is jaw-dropping in each scene, making the depiction of emotional turmoil look like a walk in the park.
The writing and direction are not to be overlooked either. Mike Makowsky, the writer, went to a middle school in the Roslyn school district while this scandal took place back in 2002, so he knows exactly what it felt like to be a member of this community while chaos was ensuing. This experience shows in the screenplay, for he looks at every single angle when attempting to portray this crime; we see it from the perspective of the perpetrators, the students, the families of students, the relatives of the criminals, etc. When the credits roll, viewers will feel like they have a full picture of exactly what happened during the scandal at the Roslyn School District in the early 2000s. Director Cory Finley adds to this by showing immense talent in the way he stages each scene. His previous film, Thoroughbreds, was a stunning debut effort about finding meaning in life even in the most unorthodox of places, and he brings the same amount of talent to Bad Education, proving he is one of the top directors to watch right now. His shining moment as a director (as well as one of Jackman’s) is the final scene, where the entire movie comes full circle in a satisfying and emotional way.
It’s been some time since I’ve had a movie blindside me this hard. Hugh Jackman is always fantastic in just about everything he does, but I was still caught off guard with just how genius he and the rest of the cast and crew are. Findley too is a considerable talent, and he is one more filmmaker to put on your radar, as if we didn’t have enough. This true story sounds like it would be a bore to experience, but it is in fact more fascinating and thrilling than many action movies and more emotional and character-driven than most Oscar-bait movies. Bad Education is an emotional roller coaster that leaves you with a conflicting view about the morality of the situation, but also leaves you with plenty of eye-opening realizations about the state of the education system in a corrupt society. HBO knocks this one into the stratosphere, creating the best original film they have produced thus far. Check this one out — it’s more than worth your time.
I give Bad Education an A+.