Ain’t that the truth! Bad Education, the new film from director Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky, tells a true story of what we’re all familiar with seeing. Officials building up trust making everyone see them as the best before everything comes crashing down as they are exposed for their wrongdoing. The film got rave reviews upon its premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival and last night made its wide premiere on HBO. This is a movie I’d been highly anticipating with its reviews and premise. What did I think of it? Here is my review:
It’s 2002, Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is superintendent of New York’s Roslyn School District, a district comprised of upper-middle-class communities on Long Island’s North Shore about 25 miles east of Manhattan. In the intro, Tassone is introduced by Board of Education President Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) at a community event as Roslyn High School, under Tassone’s leadership, has been recently ranked as #4 in the nation’s best performing high schools. Once Tassone enters the auditorium, he’s treated like a rockstar with loud applause and praise. You wouldn’t expect this type of adulation for someone who is basically the CEO of a school district but as Spicer says in his speech, Dr. Tassone has been helping the district accomplish a lot introducing new programs and improvements that have only enhanced the district. Everyone is happy.
At first glance, Dr. Tassone seems like a person very dedicated to his job going beyond what would be expected of people in his profession. He’s friendly with everyone. He knows how to deliver good news. He spends time trying to memorize the names of every student and employee. He’s always willing to hear from everyone who comes into his office. He spends time with the students including a scene where he reads to sixth graders. And most importantly, he’s someone who understands the community he serves. Dr. Tassone knows that schools are important not just for providing kids with a good education but to serve as a great representation of the larger Roslyn community. The high quality of education in the Roslyn School District drives up home values making the area more enticing for new families to move into. As the movie puts it, “The better the school system the higher the price tag on the home.” Things seem to be picture perfect for Roslyn and Dr. Tassone.
What we find out about Dr. Tassone though is that he’s living multiple lives. Obsessed with appearance, Tassone maintains a regime of no carbs, coal smoothies, flashy suits, slicked-back hair, and facelifts. In his profession, he portrays himself as a single man who’s wife died of cancer long ago as shown by the picture he keeps of his wife on his desk. In real life, he’s a gay man living in a fancy Park Avenue apartment on the Upper East Side with his partner of over 30 years. Add to that, during an education conference in Las Vegas, Tassone runs into a former student working at a bar immediately developing a relationship and buys a house in the area together. These are not the only secrets he’s hiding.
One day, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) comes into Dr. Tassone’s office to ask him for a quote about a new skywalk proposed in the school district’s budget for the high school that she’s reporting on. Rachel doesn’t try to bother Tassone too much saying it’s just a puff piece to which Tassone challenges Rachel to take it more seriously telling her to take any assignment and make it into a story. As we’ll see, those words will come back to bite him in the ass. Rachel follows up by talking to Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), Roslyn’s assistant superintendent for business meaning she’s in charge of the district’s finances. She asks for information on bids from district contractors that are providing the money for the proposed skywalk. Hungry for more details, Rachel gets access to the basement where the district archives are stored. From there, Rachel begins to uncover a big secret that’s been lurking beneath the picture-perfect image of Roslyn.
What we learn is that Dr. Tassone, Gluckin, and other employees have been embezzling millions of dollars from the school district for their own personal expenses, $11 million to be exact making it the largest embezzlement scheme in American history. These expenses include high-end flights, vacations, home renovations, department store purchases, etc. All of this with taxpayer money that should have gone towards the schools. Word gets out about the embezzlement when Gluckin’s son is caught making expensive purchases from a hardware store intended to renovate Gluckin’s summer house in the Hamptons all with the school district’s credit card. Dr. Tassone and the school board confront Gluckin to where she admits to her wrongdoing. To protect the district’s high-standing reputation, the board decides to keep the activity from going public by forcing Gluckin to resign quietly and avoid charges all while reporting to the community that she resigned due to an illness.
But they can’t keep it secret for too long. Rachel digs deeper and deeper into the district’s finances finding major irregularities. When confronting Mrs. Gluckin about purchases like a pizza oven, Gluckin gets all defensive and says it’s for the middle school. She and her father call up contractors listed but we find out many of them don’t exist. Rachel learns this the hard way when one of the contractors listed turns out to be the superintendent’s own apartment. The district’s auditor discovers more money being misused with a lot of it coming from Dr. Tassone that includes a first-class flight with his lover from Las Vegas to which he gets defensive threatening to call up the State Comptroller to take over. Dr. Tassone is trying all he can to kill the investigation by downplaying the severity of the embezzlement, warns that colleges won’t accept students if the district is seen in a bad light, and tries to talk Rachel out of publishing her story.
Eventually, the truth does get out. Rachel’s story exposing the superintendent’s wrongdoing gets published in the school paper immediately creating a sensation within the school and the community. We see angry parents at a crowded public meeting with Dr. Tassone calling for him and everyone to be put in jail. The police come in to investigate. All shit gets out. Tassone resigns, moves to Nevada, and gets arrested along with Gluckin and their associates. We last see Dr. Tassone in prison where he goes into a dream sequence that takes us back to the beginning where Spicer is announcing Dr. Tassone. This time it’s for Roslyn High School being ranked as #1 in the nation. It’s an ambition he would never get to achieve.
A major lesson from Bad Education is that people are willing to be complicit when they see wrongdoing to protect themselves. We see this with the board’s initial reaction to keep the embezzlement under wraps. You have these board members who’ve been serving for years under Dr. Tassone with this activity occurring. Yet they never questioned it until it was too late because the school district was doing well so why question authority. All of this happening while the district asked for more money from taxpayers for improvements that were not getting done. I mean this is a clear red flag here. After Gluckin’s resignation, we see a school board meeting where after announcing Gluckin’s resignation Spicer talks about the high school’s early decision numbers to Ivy League colleges which tells you a lot about how complicit everyone is for the sake of the schools.
We see this in other ways like when Dr. Tassone, as the scandal finally catches up to him, tries to stop Spicer from making the scandal public saying he can still get his kid into Harvard. The school newspaper editor-in-chief, Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff), upon seeing Rachel’s story is worried that he might not get into the college of his dreams as he’s writing up his admissions. Clearly, no one is thinking about the financial well-being of the school district.
There are two ways of seeing Bad Education. One is as a self-destructive character drama. In the beginning, Dr. Tassone is seen as the coolest guy, as someone who is a master of what he does. The rest of the film tears down that image with every new revelation we learn about him. The film does it best to show the complexities of a man who was a good leader for his schools while also committing a very reckless crime and having to micromanage his image including keeping his sexuality hidden to keep up with the community’s expectations of him. Eventually, the world he created begins to fall apart like a Greek tragedy.
Another way of seeing Bad Education is as a commentary on corruption in our broader society and how we’re far too willing to let corruption fly when it affects us. After all, the only thing worse than people doing the crimes is the people who encourage the crime or just allow it to happen without question showing a lack of leadership. The fact that it took a student reporter of all people to expose this wrongdoing just shows that the adults in Roslyn were not doing their jobs. Once this scandal is exposed, not only do Dr. Tassone, Gluckin, and their associates get in trouble but the members of the school board are also blamed for colluding with the administration and turning a blind eye. And it’s not like these people face the consequences after their punishments. Dr. Tassone was released from prison in 2010 and still gets an annual pension of $174,000 to this day because of state law.
What I like most about Bad Education is its dedication to telling its story. Some details are fictionalized for the movie but from what I know it seems like they were fairly accurate in its portrayal of the scandal. (For his part, Dr. Tassone desribed the movie as 40 percent true taking issue with its portrayal of his private life and sexuality among other details.) More importantly, I like how it doesn’t resort to sensationalism like what most real-life dramas often do. And considering Dr. Tassone’s private life, the filmmakers could have easily gone down this path. Instead, they remain dedicated to showing the plot in every way possible. No matter what you may think of the movie, that is something to appreciate. It’s a very human portrayal.
Screenwriter Mike Makowsky was a student at Roslyn Middle School when the scandal broke which right away lends great authenticity to the film having someone with direct experience and knowledge of the situation. He even went as far as interviewing his teachers, the student reporter, and others who were around Dr. Tassone at the time. They even use real news clips from the time of officials reacting to the scandal towards the end. You can tell he was doing his homework.
On a personal level, this movie resonates with me because I live on Long Island and went to public school in a district that borders Roslyn. I never knew much about what happened. I was a little kid at the time this story broke so obviously I wouldn’t have been able to remember or understand what was going on. But the attitudes presented in the movie hit home to me as they portray Long Island. It is true that the quality of education greatly influences how a community is perceived and where people want to move on Long Island. This is a region with 124 school districts with many of them considered top-tier. As we see in the movie, Dr. Tassone and the school board are putting themselves in competition with nearby districts to be the absolute best.
As someone who used to do big administrative interviews for my high school newspaper, there’s a part of me that can relate to Rachel early on when nervously asking for Dr. Tussone’s comment and thinking her articles aren’t worth much. I mean I’ve done some good articles but being able to expose an $11 million embezzlement scheme in my own school district is far beyond my imagination. And the discussions between Rachel and Nick on what’s appropriate for the school paper is also something I relate to. If anything, Bad Education is a good example of what journalism can be at its brightest in exposing wrongdoing even in a high school newspaper.
As a resident, I like the ways this movie shows Long Island with its shots of downtown Roslyn and the surrounding communities. I just can’t help but feel happy seeing all the places I drive by all the time. The other details like the Long Island accent are spot on along with details specific to the 2000s like the use of flip-phones, internet software, and timely music cues like the use of Dido’s 2003 hit “White Flag” over the end credits that gets you into the period and the setting.
Acting-wise, everyone here is great. Hugh Jackman as Dr. Tassone manages to pull off the charm and complexity needed for his character. He and Allison Janney as Pam Gluckin work off each other really well in portraying school administrators. You could easily imagine both of them being their roles in real life. Geraldine Viswanathan as Rachel portrays the shy but ambitious school reporter wanting to make her mark while getting pushback from the paper because as Nick puts it “We’re not the Times. We’re an extracurricular.” Ray Romano as Bob Spicer portrays the conflicting feelings of being truthful to the community he’s elected to serve while also trying to protect the administrators and the schools. Every character feels integral to the story. There’s not a wasted moment in the movie.
Some of you might find Bad Education to be a bit boring and maybe lacking in parts but as I mentioned it’s a film dedicated to telling its story and on that level, it does it right. If you’re interested in a real-life white-collar crime comedy-drama with great acting, or you want to see Hugh Jackman, or more importantly you want something to watch while stuck at home in quarantine then I highly recommend you check out Bad Education.
Bad Education is currently airing on HBO and available on streaming