Review: “Bad Education”

As a retired school administrator, I knew the story of disgraced New York School Superintendent Frank Tassone, who, along with his Chief Business Officer Pam Gluckin, was found guilty of the largest public school embezzlement in American history.

However, as I got set to watch Bad Education on HBO, I groaned when I saw that actor Hugh Jackman was heading the cast as School Superintendent Frank Tassone. Ever since Jackman’s grisly performance as Jean Valjean in the film version of Les Miserables, when his wretched nails-on-the-chalkboard vocals on the wonderful song Bring Him Home nearly sent me stumbling discombobulated from the movie theater, I have studiously avoided Jackman in any role.

However, here Jackman delivers a finely crafted, emotionally complex performance of the type of leadership persona that can, without sufficient oversight or a personal moral compass, wreak havoc on school communities.

I am reluctant to provide too much detail on the plot of this fine movie, which simply stated, told the story of how a rogue school superintendent and his amoral and guileful chief business official fleeced millions of public education dollars from their toney Long Island school district’s coffers over an extended period of time.

I do want to devote most of this review to the themes that animated the film. Those themes, along with the nuances of the actors performances made a sordid story of greed and social striving, both personal and community wide, into extremely compelling movie viewing.

As stated, as a former school administrator, with leadership stints at the school site and district office, within communities working class and very affluent, I immediately recognized Superintendent Frank Tassone as the classic “careerist” which among school administrators is a decidedly pejorative term. “Careerist” administrators are leaders whose main goal is for professional advancement and prestige, often beginning to think about their next job before they have even started their new job.

Jackman’s performance as the uber-careerist Frank Tassone was brilliant. He played Tassone as excessively ubiquitous in his relations with a striving overly demanding parent community, obsessively focused upon his expensive sartorial presentation, personally vain about his physical appearance, and able to brilliantly pivot his personality and verbal messaging from faux intimate to creepy smarmy, depending upon the audience, context, and event. In my 32 years as an educator – with 25 as an administrator – I have known my fair share of ‘Jackman as Tassone’ careerists for sure. But none – to my knowledge – were thieves, embezzlers, or criminals.

Bad Education’s presentation of the affluent Long Island enclave’s public school system certainly rang true in my professional experiences. I worked as an administrator in a range of school districts, including some extremely affluent communities. In those kinds of environments, the culture of high expectations and social, economic, and educational striving certainly animates and influences the educational direction and aspirations of any Superintendent. Some may argue that within districts like Frank Tassone’s, one must possess a high degree of careerist mojo to even survive and certainly to succeed, both personally and professionally.

What made this movie such a compelling story, at least for someone with experience with school boards as the legal fiduciary guardians of the fiscal health of a school organization, was the total lack of fiscal oversight that was exercised by Tassone’s school board. This was absolutely not my experience with CA school boards, large or small, working class or professional, urban or suburban. That Tassone and his Chief Business Official Pam Gluckman – brought to grim greedy life by the always excellent Alison Janney – were able to keep their vast embezzlement from school board scrutiny was jaw dropping.

In CA, public school budgets are audited on an annual basis and I can personally verify that the Department of CA’s budget review is carried out with grim proctological intensity. Apparently, during Tassone’s and Gluckin’s tenures, New York state audits of local school district budgets did not exist.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the performance of Geraldine Viswanathna as the indefatigable high school newspaper reporter Rachel Bhargava. Viswanathna’s presentation of the student reporter’s unruffled Woodward and Bernstein like repose was never more evident when, just as she was breaking the story in her school newspaper, the superintendent chillingly threatened her. This particular scene, played superbly by both actors, was, again, yet another superb dramatic rendering in this excellent film.

In closing, Bad Education did present a sordid story of avarice from some despicable people who violated their professional and fiduciary duty to educate their community’s students. Yet, the quality of Hugh Jackman’s performance and the complex and variegated presentations of the personal and professional motives and failings of not only the two criminals but of an entire community, made for a compelling and thoughtful drama.

I highly recommend this film.

Bad Education

Written by Mike Makowsky 

Directed by Cory Finley

Available on HBO and its affiliated channels

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