Bad Education premiered on HBO to critical acclaim on April 25, 2020
Residents of the Long Island village of Roslyn have spent the last decade, reeling from a rather embarrassing scandal that continues to cast a shadow over the public school district to this day. Yet, the early 2000s yielded no signs of misfortune ever befalling these people, given how The Wall Street Journal had just then named Roslyn the fourth top school district in the country - a declaration which came as a timely acknowledgement of Roslyn’s suburban prosperity and the steady drive of its residents to aspire for greater things.
Little did the Roslynites know at the time what was in store for them. Lost in the calm before the storm, they were entirely unprepared for the ensuing mayhem. And in the middle of all that commotion stood a sharply dressed, remarkably composed Dr Frank Tassone – the man given credit for the rising success of Roslyn’s schools and the mastermind of the largest school embezzlement scandal in the United States.
Roslyn’s School Superintendent Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his deputy Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), together making a formidable team of dedicated educators, have spent much of their career gunning for the number one spot as the top school district in the country while stealing $11.2 million from the school budget over a decade. The apparent divide between their public and hidden life, once revealed, was a smack across the district’s face, a puzzle that the residents are to this day sentenced to grapple with.
As all real estate agents worth their salt would tell us - the better the public schools perform, the higher the market value of the local real estate goes. What Tassone and Gluckin were trying to obtain was not only about the schools anymore. Instead of calling attention to a lifestyle that was incongruous with that of public school employees, their sleek suits, conspicuous facelifts and expensive house renovations were repeatedly met with casual indulgence, if not outright approval across the board. Therein lies the unwitting complicity of an entire district in a scandal that ultimately left them feeling someone pulled the rug from under their feet. One cannot help but wonder whether Roslyn turned a blind eye to this egregious white collar crime on purpose and enabled it for more than a decade in the pursuit of success that came at an unusually high price.
Bad Education is a smartly crafted, visually stylish dramatization of Frank Tassone’s fall from grace, and at the same time a sincere tribute to his surviving, unblemished reputation as a devoted teacher. Displaying a willingness to go beyond a mere character study, the film offers a nuanced, compelling commentary (often to a fault) as to what is perceived as success in modern society - a story of colliding forces, marked by greed seeping into American suburbs with or without the residents’ knowledge.
What makes the promising young director Cory Finley’s film so captivating is also what renders its collapse inevitable. The ambivalent tone of the film is purposefully glossed over, hoping that the audience would be content with its surface-level nuance. As Tassone prepares his speeches for assembly meetings in the little boys’ room before the mirror for the umpteenth time and stops to admire his own appearance, the film never takes a moment to delve into the factors driving his self-delusion or the root of the corruption and vanity coursing through his veins, as if the man behind the camera was charmed to silence by the man in the mirror as well. Hence, all we are given are side-glances and occasional gasps; but hardly any insights into the nature of the crime or the criminal himself.
When Mike Makowsky, at the age of six, moved to Roslyn, his parents enrolled him in one of the public schools. There as a first grader, he met Frank Tassone. The six-year old could not believe that a school superintendent would take the time to personally assess the reading level of every student and even make it a point to memorize the names of all former and current students. Now 28, Mike fondly reminisces reciting ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ to “an attentive man with a notepad.”
In 2015, a struggling screenwriter Mike returned to Roslyn, sat down with former teachers and parents, and penned the script of Bad Education. Despite witnessing the scandal unfold first hand and later making a film out of it, Mike remains adamant in his conviction that Frank Tassone was by all accounts a dedicated educator. Even if the film does not dig into what turns the much-revered school administrator into a remorseless criminal, the real life story - seen through the eyes of a former student, is jarring and exhilarating enough that we cannot help but occasionally take pleasure in Jackman’s flashy, hollow smiles.