By Bradley Lane
Relative newcomer, director Cory Finley, scored big when his second film ever premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. It was then subsequently purchased by HBO, a sale that got better thanks to the global pandemic. Not only was this a great acquisition by HBO, it also would end up premiering in April of 2020 when most of the United States was under a lockdown order. The film follows the real-life story of a Long Island school superintendent, Dr. Frank Tassone, that in conjunction with others at the school administration, committed the largest school embezzlement scheme in American history. Not only that, but screenwriter Mike Makowsky actually attended the very school where the story is set.
The most obvious highlight of the film is in its central character’s performance by Hugh Jackman. Make no mistake; this is Tassone’s story and Jackman is in peak form, truly attempting to not only perform the role, but understand his character. The ensemble cast also includes great performances from well-known co-stars like Allison Janey, Ray Romano and Alex Wolff. All the while introducing us to younger performers that you’re sure to be familiar with soon like Geraldine Viswanathan, as the young reporter breaking the story at the school newspaper and Rafael Casal, playing a former student of a Dr. Tassone.
However, the real magic of Bad Education is in its meticulously constructed script and its absolutely genius structure. Makowsky’s script is very purposeful in its slow drip of information to the audience. Certain scenes at the beginning are completely recontextualized by the end when the audience finally is privy to the full picture. This makes the script not only an incredibly entertaining experience, but also ends up mirroring the characters’ journey of discovery in the film.
Finley’s direction also focuses attention not only to the crime story being told, but also on the mind of Dr. Tassone. Stealing money is identified early as the easy part, the hard part is convincing everyone else that there is no way he could steal money. Hugh Jackman, as Tassone, presents himself as a person we have all met before; clean-cut, a smooth talker and more than anything else reflects an image of integrity. It is his pursuit of that image-based lifestyle that leads him to make the decisions he eventually does.
Bad Education is an extremely focused film; the filmmakers set out to tell the exact story they made. It is only held back by a somewhat cliched visual style and slight pacing issues toward the beginning, but even those are nitpicking, really. It is an incredible true story that deserves to be watched, discussed and loved. Bad Education is available to stream with an HBO subscription.