Bad Education (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): When all begin to fall down for him and his school

HBO TV movie “Bad Education”, which won an Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie a few months ago, is a compelling true crime drama about the largest public school embezzlement in American history. Believe or not, it happened at a school which was regarded as one of the best public schools in the country at that time, and the movie gives us a close look on how everything came to fell apart for not only the person mainly responsible for that but also many others around him.

The opening scene of the movie shows us how things looked so good for Roslyn High School in Long Island, New York in 2002. At that time, Roslyn High School was the fourth-ranked public school in the country while constantly sending its many graduated students to a number of prestigious colleges around the country, and it goes without saying that this enviable status of the school had benefited its neighborhood in more than one aspect. For example, many parents caring about their children’s education were surely eager to get enrolled in the school, and that had considerably enhanced the real estate value of the neighborhood.

Most of the credit for how the school has been vastly improved during last 10 years goes to Dr. Frank Tasson (Hugh Jackman), who has dutifully served as the school district superintendent of Roslyn. When he appears in front of many students and parents during one public event to celebrate their school’s prestigious status, everyone cheers, and he effortlessly grabs everyone’s attention with his natural charm and charisma as announcing another big project to improve the public image of their school further.

Of course, that big project in question requires lots of funding from the beginning, so Tasson and others around him have been busy with preparing for getting enough money and support, but then there comes a big problem which may ruin their plan as well as the whole school. Due to one small mistake, it is belatedly revealed that Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who has been Tasson’s right-hand person as his assistant superintendent, has stolen at least $225,000 for years, and the school board members including Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) are ready to report this serious incident of embezzlement to the police, but then they come to change their mind after Tasson suggests that they should handle this case for themselves without any fuss. After all, this incident is going to tarnish the public image of their school if it is ever leaked to the media, and that is the last thing wanted by Spicer and other school board members, who all have benefited a lot from the prestigious status of their school and naturally do not want to lose it at all just because of one unexpected incident.

In the end, Gluckin is forced to resign with a false excuse while also losing her professional license, and she is quite bitter about this. Sure, she is indeed guilty of longtime embezzlement which eventually turns out to be quite bigger it seemed at first, but the following internal audit subsequently comes to reveal that there is something Tasson did not tell to others, and that is bound to be exposed sooner or later thanks to Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a student reporter who has worked on an article for the Roslyn High School paper. At first, her job was simply getting to know more about the aforementioned school project and then reporting it, but this seemingly simple job leads her to more questions and investigations, and she subsequently comes to notice many odd and suspicious things here and there in public records.

As the big dirty picture of her school becomes clearer to her step by step, Bhargava becomes quite conflicted as wondering about what to do with what she has found out. Her editor is understandably reluctant because her article can ruin the promising status of them and many other students in their school, and, of course, it does not take much time for Tasson to learn of what she has been investigating. During one small but tense scene between Tasson and Bhargava, he justifies everything for what he has achieved for his school, and that makes her more conflicted than before.

When the screenplay by writer/co-producer Mike Makowsky, which is based on Robert Kolker’s nonfiction book “The Bad Superintendent”, eventually arrives at the narrative point where all hell breaks loose for Tasson and others around him, the movie become less engaging as trudging from one expected moment to another, but Hugh Jackman, who deservedly received an Emmy nomination for his performance here in this film, steadily carries the movie as usual. As we come to learn more of how dishonest and corrupt Tasson has really been, Jackman vividly conveys Tasson’s inevitable implosion behind his confident façade, and he is particularly good when his character finally comes to face the inevitable consequences coming upon his life.

Around Jackman, director Cory Finley, who previously drew our attention for his first feature film “Thoroughbreds” (2017), assembles a number of various talented performers. While Allison Janney is dependable as usual, Ray Romano, Alex Wolff, and Rafael Casal are also solid in their crucial supporting roles, and Geraldine Viswanathan did a lot more than expected from her rather functional character.

On the whole, “Bad Education” is entertaining thanks to Finley’s competent direction and Jackman’s terrific acting, which reminds us again that he is one of the most charismatic performers in our time. Yes, most of us still remember him for playing that comic book superhero, but he has shown us that he can do lots of other things, and the movie is one of the best examples for that.

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