Monday 22 August 2022

Movie Review: Bad Education (2019)

A corruption drama, Bad Education reveals the unscrupulous rot that can lurk behind slick appearances.

In 2002, the public Roslyn High School of Long Island, New York is on the upswing, with many students accepted into prestigious colleges. School district superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his loyal assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) are applauded for the school's improved performance, and the commensurate rise in the area's real estate values. Tassone is a hands-on, caring, and empathetic leader, admired by parents, teachers, administrators, and elected officials, including the school board's Bob Spicer (Ray Romano).

In his personal life, Tassone is a closeted homosexual, and during a conference trip starts a new relationship with Las Vegas bartender Kyle (Rafael Casal). But his seemingly perfect world starts to unravel when credit card misuse reveals financial irregularities and Pam is implicated in an embezzlement scandal. Frank minimizes the damage to the school's reputation by forcing her resignation, but student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) starts poking deeper into the school's financial records.

Based on a true story and a rare instance of a student newspaper breaking a major corruption story, Bad Education sparkles with a jaunty vibe. Mike Makowsky's script is brisk, and director Cory Finley keeps the mood light with a mounting "this can't be happening" attitude. As Roslyn High School climbs the rankings, the drive to be ranked first obscures eroding morality, and no one cares enough to ask awkward questions. Funds are embezzled to pay for clothes, vacations, cars, plastic surgery, and home renovations, and the film teases out a sense of entitlement that starts slowly and innocently, then grows to an overriding I deserve this conviction.

The narrative enjoys the challenge of discerning crime hiding behind attractive appearances, Tassone as the central character presenting a perfect substance-and-style image the school is happy to embrace. Hugh Jackman portrays a man with a blinding glow, personable, approachable, charming, and almost old-fashioned in his immaculate attention to attire and appearance. Allison Janney allows Pam Gluckin to relish the side-ride as a hard working public servant who paid her dues and now wants to land the prize.

Makowsky ensures good journalism receives due credit. Operating almost in silence and with quiet determination, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (based on the real-life Rebekah Rombom) is initially and ironically encouraged by Tassone to not settle for puff pieces. She then has to confront the hard implications of her eye-popping investigative findings. Geraldine Viswanathan offers dignified inquisitiveness in the role, and Rachel's home environment (her father has his own compelling story) would have benefitted from more screen time.

Shortcuts are always attractive, but while wealth is transitory, humiliation is a permanent destination.

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