Frank Tassone, the man at the center of the $11 million Long Island school-district embezzlement scheme that dominated headlines in the early 2000s, claims that the new HBO film about him is somewhere around 50% accurate. Admittedly, he’s the only one who truly knows, but even if the subplots and nuance don’t necessarily stay true-to-life, Bad Education is still an astounding story, and director Cory Finley presents it with all the reverence (or lack thereof) that it deserves.
Hugh Jackman, offering up perhaps the best performance of his multifarious career, stars as Tassone, he of the slicked-back hair, double-breasted suits, and penchant for using Roslyn taxpayer money for the occasional bagel, Italian dinner, or first-class trip on the Concorde. And let’s not forget the Botox treatments and plastic surgery. And convertible Mercedes.
At the outset, we meet Tassone at his height, having just succeeded in earning the district’s standing as the fourth-best in the nation, but it doesn’t take long for the mighty (and mightily greedy) to fall. Ironically, it begins when Roslyn junior Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) comes to the office to get a quote from Tassone for a “puff piece” she’s writing for the school paper about a new capital improvement project. Ever the motivator, he actually encourages her to treat every story as important, and when she does indeed dig deeper, she eventually uncovers the many years of under-the-table deals and fund misappropriation. (In real life, it happened a bit differently, but we get the point.)
The first domino to fall is Assistant Superintendent Pamela Gluckin (a phenomenal Allison Janney), who was also in on the scheme and who Tassone threw under the bus in order to save district face. When the school board came calling, he argued that sweeping everything under the rug would be the best course of action, what with the academic lives of students (not to mention property values in Roslyn) hanging in the balance. It doesn’t take long, though, for the money trail to lead back to Tassone himself, and it’s here when Bad Education finally starts to pick up steam.
The script by Mike Makowsky, who was a student himself in Roslyn when the scandal broke, seamlessly blends black comedy and the outlandish crime(s), but it feels as though he never puts his foot all the way down on the gas pedal. With the vibe of a kinder, gentler Fargo (no one gets killed here, thankfully), Bad Education certainly has its share of outlandish moments, but it’s almost as though Makowsky felt the need for a modicum of restraint instead of yanking us with both hands into the real-life gonzo asylum of idiocy.
That being said, it’s hard to qualify Bad Education as a sophomore slump for Finley; there are plenty of seasoned directors who would have had a hard time following up 2017’s excellent Thoroughbreds. And even though the film falls a little flatter than it needs to (and, yes, may only be 50% true), the award-caliber performances at its core are enough to make Bad Education good. Very good, indeed.