HBO has historically maintained a well-rounded catalog of films. It’s what their brand was built on before original programming became the flagship of the brand. While the climate for movie releases may never return to what it once was, HBO was smart enough to snag the distribution rights to one of the hottest properties at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Bad Education came at just the right time, blending a wholly unique character study with one of those irresistible stories where truth is stranger than fiction.
Based on the New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker, when a string of purchases gets flagged on a New York school district expense account and a dedicated student journalist begins asking questions about a cosmetic construction project on campus, the thread on the biggest public school embezzlement scandal in American history begins to unravel.
If you’ve seen Thoroughbreds, you’ll know Corey Finley is a very talented young filmmaker. If you haven’t (check it out), the talent that signed on to his sophomore project is a pretty good indicator. He has great instincts for pacing and narrative downtime. This film isn’t even two-hours long but it takes the time to flesh out its most important characters without ever feeling like it’s wasting time. There are a lot of true crime stories to choose but Finley has a certain dramatic flair mixed with elements of dark comedy that piece together very nicely. I will have all his projects on my radar going forward.
Amid a number of positives, this will go down as one of the career-defining performances for Hugh Jackman. His years as Wolverine made him a household name but also downplayed how good of an actor he’s become over the years. His portrayal of Roslyn school district superintendent Frank Tassone is layered with complexity and more humanity than you’d expect from someone embroiled in this kind of scandal. Thanks in large part to Mike Makowsky’s excellent script, it’s clear Tassone’s not the good guy but this was anything but a black-and-white portrayal. The Australian renaissance man isn’t short on charisma and he brought heart, depth, and even sympathy to a character many would consider irredeemable.
Allison Janney continues to demonstrate that she’s a bonafide home run hitter. Playing Pam Gluckin, another high-ranking school official who’s essentially Tassone’s right hand, she’s the first domino to fall when her greed and arrogance get out of control. Janney plays the character with a relentless level of entitlement which makes her exceedingly easy to dislike. It draws a clear contrast between Gluckin and Tassone when it comes to motivation and character, which again points back to Makowsky’s smartly designed screenplay. The Oscar-winner brought a level of intensity to the performance that helped determine the level of audience empathy and both her and Jackman should be looking at Golden Globe nominations for their efforts.
The cast is stacked with strong supporting performances by Ray Romano, Annaleigh Ashford, and the increasingly versatile Rafael Casal with a breakout role for Geraldine Viswanathan. It’s easy to see why this movie was so popular coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival and, given the current set of circumstances, it’s nice to see it find a home on HBO.
Recommendation: If you like true crime stories, this is a good one. See if for the performances and the characters that inspired them.