“It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.”
Bad Education has a lot to grapple with. A lot of multiple choice questions. On one hand, the film almost comes across as a satirical, broad bladed knife meant to skewer and slash apart the economics of greed. And on the other, we’re given glimpses into the behaviors of true sociopaths, convinced that all the good they do outweighs all of the dirt they sweep underneath the sprawling rug. There’s plenty more where that came from. Best of all, Bad Education encourages empathy towards people who aren’t wholly bad, and who aren’t all good either. It’s conflicting, trying to deem whether or not the end goal really justifies the tainted means taken to get there. I assume that’s why its bitter taste is so engrossing.
For Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the clean-cut and mannered superintendent of Long Island’s Roslyn School District, and who oversees the area’s high school, the goal is to be the best in the nation. They’re just a few rungs below when the story enters its 2002 landscape, introducing us to a charismatic, hardworking man who seems to believe success begets further success. He’s similar to one of those half time circus performers, maneuvering around on a unicycle and spinning countless plates. Frank doesn’t drop the ball; he gets the job done by any means necessary. As does Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), the assistant superintendent, and the first in this story to be exposed for the caustic, cold-hearted fraud she is behind her closed office doors.
When it comes to being an exposé, Bad Education leans on student Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), an editorial inferior who writes for the school paper and sniffs out the scent of possible wrongdoing. Frank even encourages the young ladie’s investigation, unknowingly inspiring his own eventual undoing. Rachel does the dirty work and digs through files, finds discrepancies, and struggles to be taken seriously by Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff, a hit or miss actor who unfortunately gives the film’s lone bad performance). But her story is the seed for the broader scope of the movie’s own story, and I wish that Viswanathan had been a bigger player in the picture overall. I truly believe a few more strong scenes would have landed her some best supporting actress nominations. She’s every bit as talented in dramas as she’s proved herself to be in raunchy teen comedies.
Director Cory Finley’s movie starts at the top though, and there he has Hugh Jackman giving one of the most menacing performances of his illustrious career. Frank isn’t a bully even though he’s handsome and physically imposing. He knows the students, their interests, and studies them just as they do flashcards for a vocabulary test. Frank wants the best for them. Yet Bad Education shows how his twisted self-interest and auspicious actions conflict with the betterment of others, and the film travels down a rabbit hole of deceit and lies, fueling the kind of suburban corruption and collateral damage that must be seen to be believed. In a strange year where the theatrical pickings are slim, HBO’s Bad Education stands out as one of the best 2020 has had to offer thus far.
“You might forget, but we don’t. We never forget. Ever.”
Rating: 4 out of 5