Hugh Jackman in a scene from Bad Education.
Hugh Jackman in a scene from Bad Education.

Wild true story in Jackman’s new movie

Frank Tassone would go on to regret encouraging student reporter Rachel Bhargava to find the interesting story within a puff piece.

When he spoke those words as a revered educator to an inquisitive student asking about an upcoming school "skywalk" development, he didn't know he was sealing his own downfall.

Based on an extraordinary true story of a $US11.2 million embezzlement scandal, the Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney movie Bad Education, screening on Foxtel on Sunday night, is a tightly plotted and compelling cautionary tale of malfeasance, greed, hubris and what happens when it suits everyone to look away.

It's the US's largest known school embezzlement scandal, which is why it's such a juicy subject for a dramatised movie.

Frank Tassone (Jackman) was a charismatic and attentive school superintendent in a wealthy public school district on New York's Long Island. Roslyn High School was ranked among the US's best, sending its graduates off to prestigious Ivy League colleges.

The better the school performed, the higher the district's property prices became, which made Tassone popular among the school board led by Bob Spicer (Ray Romano).

 

Bad Education first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year Supplied by Foxtel.
Bad Education first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year Supplied by Foxtel.

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With the ability to charm students and parents, the highly educated Tassone was revered in the community even running a book club with the middle-aged voter mums he knew was crucial to passing the school budget.

His deputy Pam Gluckin (Janney) was a long-time member of staff and appeared to be dedicated, often working late hours.

It's easy to see how the pair got away with their hands in the till for so long. They delivered the results parents wanted both for their kids' futures and for their own asset portfolios - what did it matter if the school's ceilings were constantly leaking?

So intrepid school reporter Rachel's (Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan) poking around in the basement archives at line-item invoices and budgets, looking for the story behind the puff piece, was something of an inconvenience.

 

Geraldine Viswanathan is an Australian actor from NSW who has also starred in Blockers, Hala and Miracle Workers
Geraldine Viswanathan is an Australian actor from NSW who has also starred in Blockers, Hala and Miracle Workers

 

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Bad Education, directed by Cory Finley and written by former real-life Roslyn student Mike Makowsky, is a pacy, entertaining and wonderfully performed movie.

It's not a showy film with its washed-out visuals of suburban banality that resembles the aesthetic of story-driven movies such as Spotlight.

The story is set in the early 2000s and viewers will appreciate the era-specific cues such as a blow-up bubble chair in Rachel's bedroom, the kind every high schooler had at the time, or Dido's "White Flag" playing over the end credits.

The script is well-structured, pushing its story from one act to the next, weaving its characters and subplots together, only tripping slightly in a final act that feels heavy-handed thanks to its use of overly dramatic classical score.

The performances are all excellent, especially the always great Janney and Jackman who crafted this man who genuinely cares about the value of education but acutely felt the resentment and jealousy of someone who served the wealthier parents of his district.

As Tassone, Jackman can shift so quickly from sociopathy and manipulation to the "good person" he genuinely believes himself to be.

 

Ray Romano has played many dramatic roles since the end of his long-running sitcom
Ray Romano has played many dramatic roles since the end of his long-running sitcom

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Bad Education is more concerned with the why than the how of Tassone and Gluckin managing to evade detection for so long with their charges of first class tickets to London on the Concorde, $30,000 on dry cleaning and invoices from dummy corporations for services that were never provided.

While the film condemns their individual actions, it's a larger indictment on a system that not only allowed this to perpetuate but encouraged it.

Similar to Alexander Payne's superb, satirical take on high school politics Election, Bad Education is a microcosm exploration of the structural issues and power dynamics that encourage people to behave unethically, to take and steal, and for others to ignore it because it benefits them.

 

Bad Education is a microcosm exploration of wider, endemic issues of greed and envy
Bad Education is a microcosm exploration of wider, endemic issues of greed and envy

 

There also a lot to be said about how stupid and ludicrous the American public school system is, with budgets linked to property taxes and therefore the wealth of the parents in its area, and with important positions and policies governed by politics and voters, and not educational expertise or need.

But that's really more of a reading from outside of it, in Australia. Whatever frustrations people have with our schools, at least it's not the American system - sadly, a sentiment applied to many situations.

Bad Education isn't as penetrating or sharp as Election or similar vibe offerings from the likes of Adam McKay (The Big Short) or Jay Roach (Recount) but it's effective in its commentary.

Fuelled by a fascinating story and its sensational performances, Bad Education is a movie worthy of its star-power and ambitions.

Rating: 3.5/5

Bad Education is on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now on Sunday, May 17 at 8.30pm

Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima

Originally published as Wild true story in Jackman's new movie


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