Bad Education (2019) review: One of the best films of the year
Matthew Turner | On 12, Jul 2020
Director: Cory Finley
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Annaleigh Ashford, Rafael Casal, Alex Wolff, Stephen Spinella, Pat Healy
Watch Bad Education online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley goes two-for-two with this gripping embezzlement drama that’s based on a jaw-dropping true story and features a career-best performance from Hugh Jackman. Make no mistake, it’s one of the best films of the year and the fact that it won’t be eligible for this year’s Oscars – after being picked up for distribution by HBO – is a tragedy.
The film opens in 2002, where Frank Tassone (Jackman) is the district superintendent of the Roslyn School District in Long Island. Beloved by students, parents and teachers alike, Frank is the consummate professional, although his vanity is hinted at early on, when we first see him in the school bathroom, primping himself before addressing an assembly hall. Ironically, Frank sows the seeds of his own downfall when he encourages student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Blockers standout Geraldine Viswanathan) to dig deeper on her puff piece about an upcoming school construction project and turn it into a real story.
When Rachel exposes vast discrepancies in the school’s accounts, Frank’s second-in-command Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) is implicated. Frank scrambles to contain the scandal, impressing upon the panicky school board (headed by Ray Romano’s Bob Spicer) that if the school loses its prestigious standing, property values in the area will plummet. But is Frank as innocent as he seems?
The casting of Jackman is inspired; he delivers a performance that is simply astonishing. Frank is, to put it mildly, a multi-layered individual and Jackman’s control in every gesture is extraordinary, fully aware that the razzle-dazzle of his front-facing persona hides a multitude of dark secrets within. What makes him – and by extension, the film – fascinating, however, is that the facade is also the truth: Frank really is an exceptional teacher and an inspirational figure who genuinely cares about each individual student and the school’s well-being. It’s just that… well, let’s just say that’s not the whole truth.
The supporting cast are equally wonderful, particularly the always-great Allison Janney, who beautifully captures both the arrogance and the shame Pam feels when she’s confronted with her crime. Similarly, Romano continues his great run of recent supporting turns, while Viswanathan radiates integrity and diligence as Rachel – the way she ignores Pam’s attempts to brush her off and keeps asking her questions is one of the film’s many great moments. (The film is also a celebration of good journalism, since it really was a student paper that broke the story in the first place.)
Scripted by Mike Makowsky, who was attending Roslyn Middle School when the Tassone scandal broke, the film is beautifully structured; the way the story reveals its salient details is a constant delight. Finley’s direction is note-perfect throughout, demonstrating as much control and precision in knowing what to unveil and when as Jackman does in his performance. The tone of the film is particularly commendable – it would have been easy to play up the caricature elements and go for easy laughs or parody, but instead Finley finds an unexpected measure of sympathy and understanding for his characters and the film is richer as a result.
The movie’s look is consistently fascinating too, and Finley packs in a number of intriguing details, such as the jet-black smoothies that Frank constantly drinks, like something out of a horror film. The icing on an already delicious cake is a terrific score by Michael Abels, which uses a single repeated note early on to effectively establish a sense of unease and tension, the feeling that something bad is coming.
Bad Education (2019) is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.