A couple of years ago, my high school paper made national news when its student reporters discovered their newly hired district superintendent had falsified her credentials. It was stunning at the time not only because it was impressive that a group of teenagers had broken the story, but because they were easily able to find red flags that the adults on the school board had overlooked. As an alumna, and a former newspaper kid, I was proud of them, but also kind of baffled. I knew several of the people on that board. They weren’t dumb. How had this woman duped them into passing her through the interview process without a second glance?
I thought about that story a lot while watching Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley’s new film Bad Education, based on a real-life scandal that rocked Long Island’s Roslyn school district in the early 2000s. Like my hometown, the scandal involved the superintendent—in this case Frank Tassone, a long-established leader of the school district who admitted to stealing millions of dollars from the schools over about a decade. Like my hometown, the story was also broken by a high school newspaper. Finley’s movie also asks and attempts to answer the same questions I’d had: how did this happen? And how did intelligent adults let it go so far?
It would be very easy to sensationalize this story, to make Hugh Jackman’s Tassone a mustache-twirling villain, or his colleagues a bunch of image-obsessed goofballs. But Bad Education, which was also written by a former Roslyn student, Mike Makowsky, doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s a very human movie that avoids making outright villains of anyone, Tassone included. Finley and Makowsky tell a story that twists and turns in some pretty odd ways, but always grounds its characters’ decisions in real emotions and desires.
Finley shows this story through several perspectives, but Tassone is its main one. He’s the respected superintendent of the Roslyn school district, having brought it national ranking and high numbers of Ivy League college-bound seniors. The high school is constructing a fancy new skyway that Tassone hopes will bring them a number one ranking. But there’s a problem. Just weeks before a scheduled vote to approve the district budget, it’s discovered that assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been embezzling from the schools’ coffers for years, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in misspent funds.
Tassone and his colleagues manage to cover Pam’s crimes up. But even after she resigns, the problem doesn’t go away. Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), a high school reporter assigned to cover the new skyway project, notices that while there’s apparently money for new construction, there are still major issues with her school’s existing facilities. Listed contractors for the district turn out never to have worked with Tassone, or to be totally invented. And considering he lives on a teacher’s salary, Tassone is always conspicuously well-dressed, and drives a nicer car than anyone else in the district. As the truth comes out, parents and colleagues alike are shocked at the extent of the district’s rot.
At the surface level, these would appear to be the actions of evil people. But they’re not. Bad Education goes out of its way to show how much Tassone and Gluckin care about the district, the teachers and the students. Tassone is involved. He goes to conferences, knows current and former students by name, and makes an effort to know personal details about educators. Gluckin is flagrant in her greed and opulent lifestyle, but she’s not necessarily selfish. She lets her niece, a single mother, in on her spending, and pays her numbskull son to do the contract work on her house, because the poor kid needs a job. When Rachel writes up her story for the paper, she debates the ethics of publishing it, knowing that the results would ruin the lives of people who worked hard to make hers better.
Jackman gives a possible career-best performance as Tassone, projecting a genuine air of geniality and caring, while keeping the actual details of his life under wraps. What he does outside of the office doesn’t matter. The schools are the only thing that matters. His selfless effort and kind attention make him hugely sympathetic. Even after it’s revealed that he stole millions from the schools, you still want him to be happy. As a former teacher and an administrator, Tassone felt he was owed for putting up with helicopter parents and a community that took him for granted. Given the power to treat himself the way he felt he deserved, he took it.
From its relatable characters to its muted cinematography and intentionally bland set design, Bad Education is crafted to show us that the “unbelievable” story at its center isn’t over-the-top at all. It’s the tale of a banal crime committed by flawed human beings taken in by traditional ideas of material success, and given the tools to take that success for themselves. It feels like a decidedly American story, one that highlights our current capitalist impulses, and our willingness to overlook blatant warning signs in the leaders who promise us success.