• James Kunovski

Bad Education: A Case for the Withering Television Movie

*Plot points are discussed below.

There’s a moment in HBO’s staple film of the year where superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and one of the office assistants, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) are discussing an evening book club over beef pastrami — on rye, we have to presume. We’re in Long Island after all, where the price of the homes (mansions) work in tandem with the prestige of the district schools. On the women who attend the book club, Gluckin states, “Each one of those woman talks to two dozen more.” Even if the viewer is only slightly aware of the true story and “New York” magazine article from which the film is based, we know that what ever these guys have been up to, those misdeeds are going to spread like wildfire.

Those misdeeds occurred in 2002, when Tassone and Gluckin, among others, embezzled up to $11 million in district finances from Roslyn High School. That school places fourth in the district and it is Frank’s personal mission to reach number one. The timeline has shifted considerably in director Cory Finley’s (Thoroughbreds) film, which recently won Best Television Movie at the Emmys. The shift favours the stakes that have been appropriately established for each character. The misuse of funds comes to light during an investigation for the school paper, “The Hilltop Beacon” led by the enthusiastic Rachel Bhargava (Australia’s Geraldine Viswanathan). In actuality, the office’s practices were discovered two years after the fact but there is still beautiful bitterness in the premise of an overachiever, in a school aimed for those very people, (every year close to a dozen reach Ivy League), discovering malpractice running in the highest places.

The cast sans Janney, who is being intervened in this scene. © HBO Films

Newcomer Viswanathan joins a legendary ensemble. Jackman is chameleonic in his turn. Many critics have suggested it could be his finest work yet. I agree. The man on screen is not the person we’ve come to expect or the gentleman who has defined himself as a beacon of showmanship and good nature. Janney is equally great, and although it is very much Jackman’s film, her scenes and her character’s campy Long Island droll are a joy. Rounding the cast are Ray Romano as the school board president who instills the idea of jumping the district’s rank into Frank’s ambition, along with Rafael Casal (Daveed Digg’s bestie and creator of “Blindspotting”) as former student Kyle, Frank’s boyfriend. Jackman plays Frank as status-driven, a bit materialistic, but also accomodating and sensitive. At times he seems preppy, almost as if the books on his shelf dictate his personality but also quite hip; he drinks flax seed smoothies.

That mix points to something beyond the façade. There happens to be something below the surface, even if it is unrelated to the act of bravado — Frank is a closeted gay man, who is cheating on his domestic partner of thirty-plus years with Kyle. Does that repression, or do the pressures of living on a “glorified teacher’s salary” dignify Frank’s theft? We never get an answer, but Finley makes it clear he never really posed the question. They are not villains in the traditional sense — we’re not really supposed to feel sorry for them and we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t because their motives are only vaguely suggested and the few hints come too little, too late. The ambiguity is quite refreshing, though many will find it frustrating, and the cast, including Jackman, confidently pull off the complexities.

Finley is much more interested in methodology. There have been countless stories of corporate abuse, and setting Bad Education apart calls for a distinctive style. Heightened style has been showcased in Adam McKay’s The Big Short (finance film about the housing bubble), which employed snap zooms and bizarre fourth-wall business jargon breakdowns along with Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat (based on the Panama Papers scandal) which paraded countless fourth-wall dialogues and humorous accents. Although ostensibly a drama, at times Bad Education feels like an offbeat comedy — the edits will hold for an extra beat to catch an awkward half-smile while the pace remains deliberately quick. Moments like these, along with Michael Abels exclamatory score, which at times feels like it belongs in another genre, thrust the plot along, as do the occasional dramatic pull-ins — you know those that start far across the way (Euphoria did it many times.)

At its core, Finley’s film is an exploration of journalism’s reach, institutional misuse of power and the pressure and corruption within the public system. Pretty dark stuff if it weren’t for the amalgamation of subtle creative nudges that amplify a fairly standard script. These themes of social and fiduciary embezzlement have never really gone away, and maybe that’s what makes the film resonate. Or maybe it’s the reinvention of familiar faces, or its saviour status for the increasingly confused television movie. Either way, like the purloining temptation that caught the attention of our leads, Bad Education's elevated approach to a popular genre might just be too good to pass by.

Bad Education is streaming wherever you get your HBO fix.

For more information on the film, see hbo.com/movies/bad-education