Cory Finley may only have two movies under his belt now, but somehow he has successfully made a name for himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers of this generation. In his Heathers meets American Pyscho directorial debut Thoroughbreds (2018), Finley examines the corrupting influence of generational wealth. And he does so by brilliantly mixing dark comedy and edge-of-your-seat thriller. His second feature Bad Education still explores the same subject of wealth and its corrupting impact on people, but since the story is stemmed from a real white-collar scandal that erupted in 2002, the scope is obviously grander — a challenge that Finley and his screenwriter Mike Makowsky tackle effortlessly.
More Than A True Crime Adaptation
Loosely based on Robert Kolker’s 2004 New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintendent”, Bad Education focuses on Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), a charismatic and stylish superintendent of Roslyn, Long Island school district as he sinks deeper and deeper in the school money embezzlement scheme that he carries on with his assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney in an acerbic and funny performance). The first time we meet him is when he’s introduced by the school board leader Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) at a parent assembly for a presentation explaining the success story of how Frank’s school district becomes the fourth best school in the entire country.
At first glance, there’s nothing suspiciously bad about him. He’s just a hard-working people person who wants nothing but the best for his district. Everyone loves and admires him. And when he’s not busy at work, he tries his best to attend the book club held by the parents of his students. But as the movie progresses, we can sense from the way he talks and slickly maneuver himself at any events that there’s something sinister about the guy. And it’s not wrong. Turns out, he and Pam have been funneling the school funds into their own pockets without everyone else in the office noticing. They bond over this crime, and it’s made even more explicit when at lunch break, Pam quizzes Frank the name of the students and the parents just so he can look like he always has their best interests at heart.
The movie never explains how Frank and Pam embezzle the money, and that’s for the better of it. By dismissing the mechanics of their crime from the get-go, Bad Education morphs from just another based-on-true-story crime drama into a character study observing the hubris that these two characters have, and the extreme length that they’re willing to go in order to keep their pockets full. And as a result, the movie feels richer as it invites us to understand the motivation behind these two characters without ever once asking us to condone their actions.
Bad Education also smartly avoids the investigative thriller tropes even though there’s a school journalist named Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) involved in revealing Frank and Pam’s dirty laundry. Instead, the movie makes it clear that what triggers Frank and Pam’s downfall is their own doing. If Frank does not condescendingly tell Rachel to turn his puff piece into a bigger article about the Skywalk project of the school district, he might still have all his wealth. If Pam does not let her greed to bring her own family into the scheme, she might still have her job and pride. Of course, it’s a big if. But it’s true. In the end, it’s all Frank and Pam being too comfortable with themselves that knocks their well-constructed house of cards down.
While Rachel’s investigation remains secondary until the very end, her presence and moral dilemma are made integral to the main story as the movie makes it clear that her future could easily be destroyed the minute she keeps digging into Frank’s crime. And throughout, the confusion of whether she should reveal the crime or not become the emotional beat to an otherwise dark movie. Viswanathan inhabits this role excellently. She’s able to display the inner worry that Rachel is grappling with her subtle facial expression while also radiating warmth and confidence at the same time. With her remarkable performances in Blockers, Miracle Workers, and now this, Viswanathan further proves herself as one of the best actresses of this generation.
Two Men in One Body
The second half of the movie is even more fascinating as it’s almost entirely dedicated to seeing Frank do literally anything to save himself from drowning like Pam. First, he attempts to fully cut his tie with Pam by firing her. He also manipulates the other school board members, who at the beginning want to report Pam to the police, to instead keep things as subtle as possible, declaring that by bringing the police into this case will only hurt the school. For a while, the damage control that Frank’s done work in his favor. No one is suspicious of him. He still has his job, and his wealth remains in his pocket. He assumes that the only thing that would hurt him is if Pam reports him to the police, which he believes wouldn’t happen.
And his assumption is true. Pam does not just lose her wealth and career, she also loses control and power. Meanwhile, Frank who’s still living his best life stupidly does not think that this whole Pam fiasco is an alarm reminding him that he should lay low for a while or even stop his crime for good. He arrogantly keeps embezzling the school funds for personal use such as botox, expensive suits, or first-class flight, without thinking about the consequences that would entail. It’s obvious that he thinks of himself as invincible. And Jackman’s committed performance really shows how arrogant Frank is to think that he’s entitled to all the money he thinks he deserves to have just because he’s doing such a great job.
What’s even more fascinating about the way Bad Education portrays Frank is how it never paints his simply as the villain. If anything, through him, the movie reminds us that sometimes the people we idolize aren’t always what they look like on the outside. Because in the end, we can never really fully know a person unless they allow themselves to be seen. Like Frank, a person can be charismatic and smart, but it doesn’t always mean that deep down he’s an all-around good guy. Or we could also see the other way around. Frank may have committed an unredeemable crime, but it doesn’t erase the fact that he’s also a great and hardworking superintendent who brings his school district to the top.
Yes, Bad Education is full of this kind of duality, and it’s made even clearer when the movie also shows the double life that Frank’s been living: one as a straight, cisgender male who tells people that his wife died years ago, and the other one as a gay man who’s been married for 30 years and also secretly has a relationship with his former student Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal). But this is what exactly makes Bad Education so complex. The movie refuses to straightforwardly recreate the real scandal and the personality of the real people involved in it, and instead goes deeper to explore human greed and perception.
Excellent and Complex
All of these praises may seem over the top for an HBO original movie. But it’s not a lie. Bad Education is not just a great true story account, but also an excellently crafted and complex one, complete with phenomenal performances from Jackman, Janney, and Viswanathan, as well as Finley’s captivating direction and Makowsky’s sharp writing. Trust me, it’s one of the best movies of the year so far.
What do you think of Bad Education? Let us know in the comments!
Bad Education is available to stream on HBO GO and HBO Now.
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