The first time we see Frank Tassone, the beloved public-school administrator Hugh Jackman plays in Bad Education, he’s striding onto the stage of an auditorium to a roar of applause. It’s his night, a celebration of his achievements—though, as we’ll quickly come to see, he spends most days in the spotlight, too, basking in the admiration of colleagues, students, and parents alike. Frank, who puts the super in superintendent, is head of a Long Island school district that, under his stewardship, has reached the top of the national rankings. Wandering from meeting to meeting in his finely pressed suits, a warm grin perpetually plastered across his face, he has the poise (and popularity) of a Kennedy—and indeed, Frank approaches the job with a politician’s savvy, committing names and interests to memory. But the real key to his success may be that he actually gives a damn. In movie terms, it’s as if one of the carpe diem heroes of an inspirational-teacher drama rose through the ranks, spreading his zeal for education to the whole district.
That, anyway, is how Frank would probably prefer to frame his story. Bad Education tells a different version, ripped from the headlines and shaped into something far removed from the genre of gifted classroom mentors and the young lives they touch. The real Tassone, as some may remember, was at the center of New York’s Roslyn Public Schools scandal, in which a couple of high-ranking administrators embezzled millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, who grew up in the community and went to a Rosyln school the year the financial fraud came to light, dramatizes this national news into an engrossing procedural of white-collar crime. Cooking the books may sound like dry subject matter, but the film gives it a jolt of psychological urgency by building a whole house-of-cards narrative around a character of compelling contradiction: a con artist who’s managed to square his genuine commitment to the community (and the future of its children) with his betrayal of it.
Bad Education, which premiered at Toronto last fall and airs this week on HBO, takes time and great care laying out the interpersonal dynamics of the school system, before slowly lifting the veil to reveal what few within that system knew or allowed themselves to know. At first, Frank and the district’s business manager, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), are depicted mostly as tireless workaholics, all but married to the job—they seem conspiratorial only in their occasional gossip and workplace commiseration. Even as it becomes clear that Frank is living something of a double life, the revelation is humanizing: When a chance encounter with a former student (Blindspotting’s Rafael Casal) during a Las Vegas conference leads back to his hotel room, we discover that it’s more than grief for a wife that died years earlier stopping him from accepting the advances of various single mothers. He may be a pillar of the community, but that doesn’t mean he can reveal himself fully to it.
But Frank’s deception, personal and professional, runs much deeper than who he sleeps with. It spills into a history of casual, habitual malfeasance. Bad Education moves at a thrilling investigative trickle, the full truth taking shape slowly but surely, line by line on a suspicious spreadsheet—it’s like the queasy fabulist exposé of Shattered Glass, transported out of the bullpen and into an academic enclave. In one of the movie’s richest ironies, Frank hastens his own downfall by encouraging the student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan of Blockers) who ends up breaking the story to really dig into any and every assignment, even a seeming puff piece about the budget for a new skywalk being built for the high school. It’s as if his true investment in the job betrays his self-interests. Of course, the former often covers for the latter, too: When the first glimmers of wrongdoing are discovered, Frank talks the board into a quiet cover-up by invoking the damage it would do to the schools. Like most grifters, he’s a master manipulator, and knows how to prey on someone’s willingness to look the other way if it benefits them.
Cory Finley, the film’s director, launched his career with Thoroughbreds, about two rich girls plotting a murder. Bad Education is less idiosyncratic than that ingenious teen thriller, but it’s not a total departure. Zeroing in again on criminal conspiracy, Finley draws more disquieting links between upward mobility and sociopathy. And while the material calls for less stylistic virtuosity—no camera moves here threaten to overshadow the sharp performances or the plunge into a mundane environment—the director finds places to more subtly assert his sensibility, as in a superb long take where Frank walks the halls of a school, all accusatory eyes finding him. Bad Education also ripples with unforced dark-comic energy, particularly in the ensemble’s tapestry of finely sketched Tri-State personalities, from Ray Romano as the flabbergasted school-board president to American Vandal’s Jimmy Tatro as a knuckleheaded relative whose thoughtless indiscretion sets the dominos in motion.
What Finley and Makowsky find in this infamous scandal is a portrait of rampant rationalization—not just from the perpetrators, twisting themselves into ethical knots to justify their actions, but also from everyone they swindled, willing to ignore what was under their noses because the alternative might threaten their prosperity. At the center of this mosaic is Jackman. Hoodwinking us with his character’s ostensible decency, he plays Frank as a pathological compartmentalizer, capable of completely sectioning off what’s he done from his self-image as a selfless public servant. There has always been something a little compartmentalized about the star, who seems to oscillate between a seething severity (as in the X-Men movies) and the mega-watt charisma he’s tapped into for musicals and award-show gigs. In Bad Education, Jackman buries the intensity beneath the charm, letting one peek through the cracks in the other. It’s a gripping career-high performance, locating depths of real nuance in the evasions of a charlatan.