This latter and better Bad Education is based on the 2002 Rosalyn High School scandal, in which superintendent Frank Tassone stole millions from the school’s budget before being arrested in 2004.
Jackman plays Frank, who starts as Rosalyn’s all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful leader. He’s a deceptively attractive man, not (only) because he's a suited-up Hugh Jackman; he's just great at pretty much everything. He knows the name of every student, the details of every parent, the hobbies of every teacher. He even relishes the opportunity to discuss Dickens in a book club of smitten mothers. There’s no breaking his charming spell.
But this isn’t one of Jackman’s sparkly-eyed nonsense roles, like The Greatest Showman. The mask of Frank Tassone eventually lifts to reveal an unintentionally horrible character, gradually pulled apart by his numerous secrets and contradictions.
Screenwriter Mike Makowsky offers a suitable insight into these true events – chiefly because he attended Rosalyn when the scandal took place. Makowsky doesn’t open with the superintendent’s deceptions; he makes us trust Frank, love him even. There’s nothing not to like about him.
But the seeds of doubt start to be sown as the vice-superintendent Pam Gluckin, played by an always razor-sharp Allison Janney (I, Tonya, The West Wing), is caught embezzling.
Makowsky navigates his different characters with intelligent precision, to the point where even the smaller players earn some decent screen time. The most entertaining of these is Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), a student reporter ironically encouraged by Frank, who investigates the school's spending. Her sub-plot possesses all the intelligent thrills of a journo drama, with the added hilarity of her having no investigative experience.
Finley doesn’t depict these villains with the venom they deserve, which makes for exciting, curious viewing. Frank makes a difference in people’s lives, as every teacher should strive to do. His vast and empathetic memory extends also to those who’ve left the school, including a strapping young bartender he bumps into on a trip to Vegas.
Finley and Makowsky craft an endlessly hypercritical persona: angelically selfless, yet driven by ego; personable, yet wielding many masks that eventually eat his face. Frank Tussone isn’t just one person. Although Bad Education doesn’t laugh as much as it should, with some of the dialogue being blunt around the edges, the film uncovers these demons of society and finds their many human layers.
Reviewed at the 2019 London Film Festival. Bad Education is available on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from Saturday 11 July
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11 Jul 20 – 11 Jul 21, ON SKY CINEMA
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