Going forward, what will Hollywood do when it needs a Kevin Spacey type? The disgraced Oscar winner is precisely the actor a movie like “Bad Education” calls for: Cory Finley’s audacious second feature centers on the true story of Frank Tassone, district superintendent of the Roslyn School District in Long Island, N.Y. — a hero to parents and students alike, responsible for turning Roslyn High into one of the state’s top-achieving public schools, while exploiting the trust the community put in him. It’s a tricky, two-faced role that calls for the kind of firm-handshake, direct-eye-contact duplicity Spacey brought to “House of Cards” and half a dozen movies before it. Go ahead, Google “Frank Tassone” and tell me that I’m wrong.
Now, Hugh Jackman isn’t the actor I would’ve expected to fill those shoes. He’s more movie star than character actor, and this role presents him in such an unflattering light — quite literally so, shooting its cast such that their skin looks like raw chicken and every wrinkle casts a shadow — that you’d think his agent would have advised him against it. (George Clooney’s probably did.) That’s what’s so courageous about Jackman’s decision, and one of several reasons that “Bad Education” is the best work he’s ever done.
Here’s a star at the height of his powers leveraging his own appeal to remind that even our heroes are fallible and that you can never really judge someone from the outside. And Finley — whose only prior feature credit is the ice-cold, Patricia Highsmith-worthy high-wire act “Thoroughbreds” — is every bit the director to bring it home, pairing Jackman with an equally astonishing Allison Janney as school business administrator Pam Gluckin, Tassone’s creative-accounting accomplice. Finley, who clearly thrives when dramatizing morally complicated situations, doesn’t do the first thing you’d expect from any telling of this national-headline-making story (one that was first exposed by the school paper, the Hilltop Beacon): He doesn’t sensationalize it. Not that it would have been wrong to do so.
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It worked for Martin Scorsese in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It worked for Steven Soderbergh in “The Informant.” Splash it up — that’s the obvious answer. Make the colors pop, the movie’s carotid artery bulge. That’s how such material is usually played. Look at this story on paper — a high school student exposes an $11 million embezzlement scheme perpetrated by the institution’s most admired figure — and you might expect a tongue-in-cheek cross between “Election” and “To Die For” (the Gus Van Sant-directed satire inspired by Pamela Smart, a high school employee locked up after enlisting her teenage lover to murder her hubby).
Written by Mike Makowsky (“I Think We’re Alone Now”), who was attending Roslyn Middle School when the Tassone scandal broke, “Bad Education” doesn’t shy away from the humor of the situation, but it doesn’t go for the cheap laughs either (unless you count some of the distractingly tacky decorating choices in Gluckin’s ready-for-remodeling home). With their strong accents and “Sopranos”-like way of dressing, the movie’s all-too-trusting Long Island residents would’ve been an easy target for parody, but that’s not the tone Finley’s going for. From the high-contrast, stark-widescreen look of things, he’s most interested in the way that people like Tassone and Gluckin could rationalize what they were doing.
That’s easy: Of all the careers in America, educators are by far the most undercompensated. In New York, where the cost of living is high and the real estate outrageous (the latter ironically exacerbated by the quality of the public schools), how are teachers supposed to afford being part of the community they serve? That doesn’t justify graft, mind you, but it suggests how people who’ve dedicated their lives to a low-earning field might find themselves bent toward skimming a little something extra for themselves out of the school budget.
“Bad Education” makes a point of showing how much Tassone meant to the community. Early on (the year is 2002, as signified by flip phones, compact discs and other period details), Tassone is seen tweezing his nose hairs before going onstage to take credit for turning the school into a success. Roslyn is ranked No. 4 in the country. Test scores are up. Seniors are getting into Ivy League schools in record numbers. And Roslyn is set to break ground on a $7.5 million “sky walk” that could give the community a massive boost.
Rachel, a sophomore played by “Blockers” standout Geraldine Viswanathan, has just joined the school paper, whose editor isn’t prepared for the deep dive into the school’s financial records that she has in mind. “We are an extracurricular designed to get us into good colleges,” he says. But Rachel (a fictional character based on an actual student journalist) has something to prove — to herself; to her father (Harid Hillon), who was canned in an insider-trading scandal; and to Tassone, who truly cares about the students, encouraging her to turn the puff-piece assignment into something meaningful.
At times, the story borders on the incredible, and it may spoil the surprise to read some of the details that follow. Through an imbecilic mistake — in which Gluckin’s son charges thousands of dollars of home renovation supplies to the school account — the school board gets wind of Gluckin’s financial misdeeds. When it happens, audiences don’t know whether or to what degree Tassone is involved, and it’s fascinating to watch Jackman in action: Like a master politician (or a brilliant actor), he sizes up the situation, assesses his audience and begins to spin things to best protect all involved. In other movies, scenes like these are played such that viewers can see the con man’s hand, but Jackman keeps a poker face, which protects the remaining surprises until such time that Rachel can reveal them.
True-crime movies so often serve to reinforce the notion that wrongdoers are eventually brought to justice in this country. But “Bad Education” refuses to get so reductively didactic. Yes, Tassone and Gluckin stole millions of dollars, but they also made Roslyn an extremely successful school (if you don’t dwell on the leaky ceilings and outdated equipment). When certain details of Tassone’s private life come to light — including a reunion with a former student (Rafael Casal of “Blindspotting”) and an unconventional arrangement with one of the school’s mysterious suppliers (Stephen Spinella) — one may be tempted to judge. But the real takeaway is how hard that can be.
Maybe Spacey isn’t the only one who can handle the ambiguity such a performance demands. The way Jackman plays it, Tassone was a villain who didn’t see himself as such. Finley finds creative ways to suggest the discrepancy between inner and outer selves. The hair-slicked, health-conscious superintendent is constantly watching his cholesterol, forgoing carbs in favor of charcoal smoothies — which amounts to nourishing his insides with what looks like black bile. Late in the game, before the jig is up, he goes in for a face-lift — another reminder of the mask Tassone wears (and an unexpected sight for a now-50-year-old movie star). Appearances can be deceiving. This we know. But how do young people cope with having their images of their heroes shattered? And is it really any easier for adults? “Bad Education” can be a hard lesson to accept, but a necessary one in how the world works.