HBO’s ‘Bad Education’ could have been a much better and more damning indictment of the system
In HBO’s new movie Bad Education, Hugh Jackman plays the world’s best school superintendent, a man with preternatural people skills. Students, teachers, fellow administrators, parents, and even the school board for Roslyn School District on Long Island all love him.
This is a movie, so the laws of drama dictates that this supremely great guy has secrets, big ones, and that he will most likely be some sort of sociopath. That bears out in this disappointingly straightforward adaptation of a true-crime story told in a 2004 New York magazine article and many other tri-state area news outlets. The real-life version of Jackman’s character, Frank Tassone, was hiding an embezzlement of eight million dollars, perpetrated by him and the school district’s assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) over more than a decade.
But this story isn’t just a clear case of heinous fraud. In that time, Tassone and Gluckin also helped build Roslyn into a nationally recognized powerhouse program. Before the scandal unfolded, people widely considered Roslyn High School one of the top public schools in the U.S. Tassone was a charmer, a Mercedes-driving, expensive suit-wearing CEO-as-school-administrator who remembered everybody’s name, and gave off the erudite air of a man who could recite 10 very long poems off the top of his head. And he was gay.
Perhaps that shouldn’t matter in a story that takes place in the early 2000s, not the 1960 or ‘70s, but the TV film makes the dicey choice of tying Tassone’s sexuality to his sociopathy. He keeps an old photo of a supposedly deceased wife on his desk and declines passes from horny book club divorcee moms even though his sexuality is supposed to be a sort of open secret.
But apart from plastic surgery and a pricey car, most of the money Tassone funnels out of the schools appears to be toward a fake company tied to his husband, and later to a house and lots of gifts for a former student he hooks up with in Las Vegas. The books start to get sloppy when Tassone charges $20,000 first-class trips to London with his new boyfriend. (For the record, Tassone claims he had an open marriage; the film suggests he was also deceiving his husband.)
If that was all of the movie, the dry details of a Don Draper type living above his means through theft, it would be a tedious misfire. Jackman’s character study is convincing, but not flashy, his Long Island accent drifty and barely-there as the facelift scars.
Janney’s more full-throated performance, and the few early scenes with Jackson, brings life to an otherwise dreary crime story. As a loud, proudly McMansioning Long Islander, Janney expertly exudes the mystified awfully white privilege of someone who suddenly finds herself punished for taking what she believes is hers.
The movie also tries to frame the story as a larger indictment of the service-industry machine that education has become, which treats parents like customers and school administrators like managers for Karens to ask for when their kids are underachieving.
Tonally, though, Bad Education isn’t The Big Short for schools that it might have wanted to be. You don’t cast Ray Romano as a jabbering realtor/school board leader or American Vandal star Jimmy Tatro as a clueless contractor if you’re not trying to bring some comedy. But there’s only one laugh-out-loud moment, after Gluckin is caught, and Romano tries to navigate an incredibly awkward group negotiation with her. “I’m ashamed of my actions, I’m ashamed of myself, there’s no excuse for it,” Gluckin cries. “Well, the sociopathy,” Romano suggests. There’s a hint in that sequence of the dark comedic satire of America’s educational system and school boosters this movie could have been. But Bad Education simply isn’t that film.
The rest is a sad, inevitable march to the truth with a composited subplot about a high school newspaper reporter who figures it all out on her own by going through boxes of old invoices and work orders.
It’s unclear what Bad Education is really trying to say other than the old saw about slippery slopes. Near the film’s conclusion, Tassone tries to explain his actions, suggesting that a $20 restaurant receipt and a 60-cent bagel reimbursement nobody cared about started him on the path to embezzling millions, a ridiculous notion even with the context that school administrators make so much less money than corporate CEOs with similar skills. That logic, and Bad Education itself, are fuzzy. This HBO movie could have used much sharper edges and a lot more wit.