Bad Education tells the true story of Frank Tassone, a charismatic and hyper-involved superintendent that embezzled millions of taxpayer dollars over the course of a decade. The film stars Hugh Jackman as Tassone and Allison Janney as Pam Gluckin, the assistant superintendent who also covertly racked up quite a hefty bill under the school board’s name. Bad Education is Cory Finley’s sophomore feature after his 2017 release Thoroughbreds, and his direction was nothing short of marvelous. The mesmerizing camerawork paired with a tumultuous score made the film feel claustrophobic at all the right moments. Some shots felt so tense that I found myself clinging to the edge of my seat in anticipation.
Unlike its predecessor, Bad Education is not meant to be a psychological horror, but don’t tell that to Finley. What he does so masterfully is genre-bending, in a way that is neither obtuse nor conspicuous. He doesn’t treat this film like a dramedy; he allows it to feel gripping and uncomfortable as though it is horror. Peppering in moments of sheer hilarity, Finley creates a malleable triumph that will age gracefully.
Bad Education harbors some of the strongest performances of the year, namely Jackman and Janney. Jackman’s performance is incredibly nuanced; he nails the smooth-talking Long Island caricature while bringing a tremendous level of depth to the role. The final act, in particular, solidifies the belief that this is his best work of the last decade. He brings a certain sympathy and humanity to Tassone that exists in short-lived bursts, only to then bluntly remind us of his atrocities. Janney, on the other hand, balances some stellar comedic and emotive moments, as can only be expected. Her delivery is sharp, poignant, and seamlessly fits the tone of the film.
As the credits began to roll, Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky graced the stage with their presence for a Q&A period. Early on in the Q&A, Makowsky revealed that he had some personal ties to the story; he was in the eighth grade when the Tassone turmoil reached its peak and had actually met the infamous superintendent on a few occasions. Given this immediacy, he is able to truly bring this world – his world – to life.
You can see it in the small details like the snow day wand (he admitted that this was, in fact, real) or Rachel’s room (actually shot in Mike Makowsky’s childhood bedroom). He also spoke to his decision to represent Tassone’s personal life in a respectful way. “Frank Tassone was the first representation in the media, and being someone I knew, that was gay” he says. “And to see some really icky headlines like ‘Gay Superintendent’ or just ‘Long Island Gay’ was crazy because… well, what did that have to do with anything? They don’t even address the fact that he was a criminal”. Bad Education is able to mend some of the negative repercussions of the press covering this case by showcasing Tassone’s sexuality as merely a part of him, without tying it to his criminality.
As the audience trickled out of the theatre, eager to head to whatever screening they had lined up next, I couldn’t help but feel dazed. Frankly, on its own, the film’s storyline is not an inherently enticing one. It deals with white-collar crime and a scheme that’s grandiose pull was $11 million dollars, which, while contextually abhorrent, isn’t that shocking. And yet, you can’t help but feel horrified while watching the mess unfold. Much like a car wreck, or that one really invasive scene of Frank getting a facelift, you just can not look away. Bad Education is a stylish and smart flick that is comprised of school-board politics, grand larceny, and Hugh Jackman slicking his hair back to a booming score more times than I could count.