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On HBO: BAD EDUCATION (2020)

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BAD EDUCATION 
(US - 2020)

Directed by Cory Finley. Written by Mike Makowsky. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Welker White, Annaleigh Ashford, Hari Dhillon, Jeremy Shamos, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Catherine Curtin, Kathrine Narducci, Ray Abruzzo, Kayli Carter, Jimmy Tatro, Pat Healy, Victor Verhaeghe, John Scurti, Larry Romano. (Unrated, 109 mins)

Based on Robert Kolker's 2004 New York Magazine article "The Bad Superintendent," BAD EDUCATION chronicles what stands as the largest school system embezzlement--upwards of $11 million-- in US history, a scandal that broke at Roslyn High School in Long Island in 2002. What's so jaw-dropping about what's depicted here is how it was more or less in plain sight, with numerous parties involved, with no one really paying attention to things like a treasurer owning three homes and driving a Jaguar to work every day. Roslyn is a school district on the rise and getting national attention, leading to some rapidly increasing property values, with by-the-book school board president Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a millionaire from his day job selling real estate. But the star of Roslyn is beloved, charismatic superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), an almost god-like figure who's the face of the school system, a former English teacher with a passion for Charles Dickens, and a dedicated educator who always makes time for any student. He offers a quick pull quote about a heavily-hyped, multi-million "skywalk" construction project for the high school to Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a junior doing grunt work on the school paper. She says it's just a puff piece because seniors get all the good stories, but the always-inspiring Dr. Tassone reminds her that "it's only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece," and that a good journalist can turn anything into a substantive story. Curious about some contractor bids on the skywalk contract (and being curtly dismissed when she asks why some of that money isn't going toward replacing the numerous moldy and rotting ceiling tiles throughout the school), Rachel is given the key to the records room by treasurer and assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) and she starts noticing financial inconsistencies, payments for vaguely-defined services to companies with non-existent phone numbers, payments for work that was never done, etc. She keeps digging despite being scolded by senior editor-at-large Nick Fleischman (HEREDITARY's Alex Wolff) that "we're just a school paper...not the New York Times."






But then the shit hits the fan. Gluckin's dumbass son (Jimmy Tatro) makes thousands of dollars worth of purchases at several Ace hardware stores over the course of a day, all for an expensive remodeling project at one of Gluckin's three homes. A store manager alerts Spicer, who has no idea why Gluckin's son would have a school credit card in his own name. An initial probe finds a minimum of $250,000 in misappropriated funds, but that's not counting all of the lost and discarded receipts. Gluckin is thrown under the bus, forced to resign, and deemed a sociopath by Tassone, but her transgressions are only scratching the surface of what's going on with some administrative staff at Roslyn. That's especially true with Tassone, who's also been living on the school's credit line for years and has an endless list of secrets and a partially fabricated past--no spoilers, but no one seems to have any recollection of his wife who "passed away a long time ago"--that he desperately tries to keep a lid on but can't quit behaving in a reckless and stupid fashion. And like Gluckin, he wants the wealth and privilege that Roslynians like Spicer are enjoying, and has grown so accustomed to getting away with it because everyone is so happy and complacent that he's become sloppy and isn't even bothering to cover his tracks anymore.





Oozing charm and slick confidence, and constantly maintaining Tassone's impeccable appearance, Jackman turns in one of his best performances, a complex balancing act that shows Tassone juggling several illusions for years on end while keeping his dark secrets hidden behind a mask--a mask that he symbolically maintains with a touch-up facelift over Christmas break (of course, he puts it on the school's credit card). An indie screened at last year's Toronto Film Festival and picked up by HBO, BAD EDUCATION was written by Mike Makowsky, who attended Roslyn High a few years after the scandal, with the aftershocks still being felt years later. Makowsky and director Cory Finley (THOROUGHBREDS) tell the story in a straightforward and darkly comedic fashion that recalls Alexander Payne's ELECTION, though its humor is less cynical and more just the shock of the events that transpire. It stays generally faithful to the story, though Viswanathan's "Rachel Bhargava" is a fictional composite of several student reporters who secretly did the digging, checked and corroborated their sources, uncovered the extent of the criminal activity, and broke the story in the school's own Hilltop Beacon newspaper.



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