“Bad Education” Movie Review


     Based on a true story, director Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” plays, at times, more like a dark comedy or satire than that of a typical true crime opus.  The tone in which the story is told regularly has its characters practically winking at the audience, as if to say can you believe this actually happened?  Unfortunately, it did, leading to what remains today as the largest embezzlement scam within a school district in our nation’s history.  Ironically, the same ideology in place during the 2004 scandal in New York’s Roslyn school district remains today within a system designed to ensure the wealthiest families are able to have their kids attend the best schools and ultimately reach the most prestigious colleges.  It’s yet another example of how those in the upper class, regardless of race, have a significant advantage when it comes to controlling the destiny and success of their children, regardless of how twisted that concept can be.

     Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the highly successful Superintendent of Schools for the Roslyn School District, is clearly influenced by the Pat Riley method of dress and overall image.  You may remember the Hall of Fame Lakers coach of the Showtime era famously wore designer suits while prowling the sideline with a slicked back hair do and a never ending supply of charisma.  From the opening scene, which has Frank grooming himself in a high school restroom just prior to taking the stage in front of hundreds of his constituents, the powerful figure is about two things:  Looking good and doing everything in his power to ensure the district moves from its current number four ranking nationally to number one.

     Why you ask?  Well, it’s simple.  The school board, comprised of a collection of wealthy multi millionaires, believes the higher the ranking the more likely the children of the town’s richest people will gain entrance into the Ivy League school of their choice, while also having the extra benefit of seeing property values in their neighborhoods sky rocket since they know people want their kids to attend the best schools and will gladly pay a premium to live in a district that has them.  Yes, this is a world, not unlike the one featured in HBO’s “Big Little Lies”, where parents band together within a small affluent community and dictate every aspect of their kid’s lives, ensuring they are promoted to accelerated learning programs while being inserted into what they feel are the best extracurricular activities and athletics.  All in the name of somehow making sure they are on the “right” path, if there even is such a thing.  What these parents always forget is no matter how advantageous a life you give your child, it is ultimately up to them whether or not they succeed.  You can’t teach heart and desire.  It has to come from within.  Some kids have it.  Some don’t. 

     What you can do; however, is become a good example for your kids.  And the characters who populate the higher levels of the Roslyn School District are anything but.  You would think people would notice, and at least ask questions, when they see the business manager for the district living in a beach house in the Hamptons and bragging during well attended parties about the massive renovations to the already enviable property they are about to put into motion.  But that’s what Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) did as she was embezzling millions from the district budget in order to pay for it all.  Imagine, an entire family being propped up for years by tax payer money and no one thought to ask how.

     That is until Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a reporter for the high school newspaper began asking those questions and doing the research that brought forth a number of accepted practices that simply didn’t add up (The character is a fictionalized part of the story, though it is true the high school paper did break the story in real life).  Her story was assigned to be a “puff piece”, as she calls it, on a proposed $8 million sky bridge that would connect the various buildings of the high school and allow students to move about more efficiently.  A curious expense for sure, but affordable nonetheless for a district comprised of some of the most wealthy residents in Long Island.  And in his wisdom as a former English teacher, Frank practically encourages Rachel to dig deeper, obviously never believing she would uncover the truth about a man who has spent decades living an endless series of lies.   

     “Bad Education” benefits greatly from the performances by both Jackman and Janney, as each contributes some of the best work of their respective careers.  And even though the script would have benefitted from the dialogue being punched up a bit, the fact screenwriter Mike Makowsky was actually a middle school student at Roslyn when this all broke in 2004 brings an undeniable authenticity to the events depicted even if the bombshell doesn’t unfold with the kind of cinematic bravado necessary to really put an exclamation point on the seriousness of the crime.  It’s worth mentioning as well that the board initially covered up the scam because it was their belief such impropriety would jeopardize their district’s coveted national ranking, while also potentially seeing their property values plummet.  It really makes you question what people’s priorities are these days, until you think about it and realize you already know the answer: Themselves.  GRADE: B