Entertainment

'Bad Education' Turns a Real-Life School Embezzlement Scandal Into a Gripping Black Comedy

The HBO movie might also be Hugh Jackman's best performance ever.

bad education
HBO

Once an American school district reaches a certain level of student test scores and Ivy League acceptance, combined with a general level of wealth amongst its population, things start to get interesting. Roslyn High School, the setting of HBO's newest film Bad Education, directed by Cory Finley and written by Roslyn alum Mike Makowsky, operates within one of Long Island's richest districts, constantly competing against the other swanky high schools populated by all the other children from families who live in McMansions and keep beach houses in the Hamptons. Being an administrator of such a school is no joke, and district superintendent Frank Tassone had made a name for himself as one of the best, rocketing Roslyn's student body to ever-higher reaches of achievement while introducing newer, modern additions to the school infrastructure, making it an ever-more desirable place for Long Island residents to send their kids. And then, in 2002, he found himself at the center of the biggest public school embezzlement scandal in American history. 

Tassone (played by Hugh Jackman in a performance that has been described as "career best," and I'd be inclined to agree) is not just respected by his colleagues, underlings, students, and their parents; he's beloved. He's the man who turned their school into a utopia, made their students higher achievers, got them into the best colleges around, and renovated the palatial campus to nothing short of enviable. In fact, he's been heavily lobbying for funding for a new addition, a glittering aboveground "Skywalk" that will connect the wing of one building to another. It's this very Skywalk that gets one particular student, steely-eyed Rachel Bhargava (Blockers' Geraldine Viswanathan), interested in writing a piece about the subject, and when she digs through the school's long-buried financial records, she finds evidence of discrepancy upon discrepancy, extravagant charges made with school money that don't seem to have anything to do with the actual school at all. On top of everything, Roslyn's leaky ceiling is threatening to cave in: with all the money being spent on "fixing" the school, why has no one paid any attention to… fixing the school? 

It's her report, which is published by the school newspaper, the Hilltop Beacon, that brings everything crashing down around Tassone and his colleague Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney, with a delightfully rich Long Island drawl). He throws Gluckin under the bus, seemingly to keep her financial scandal from going public (making lavish purchases on the school card, tsk tsk), but it's mostly to protect himself and the more impressive amount of money he had been siphoning off the school funds for years. What follows is a strikingly entertaining and extremely blackly comedic retelling of the craziest true story you'll ever hear about employees of a public school almost making off with nearly $8 million. 

Jackman, with his hair slicked aggressively back and his suits immaculately pressed, one hand always clutching an evil-looking charcoal drink, plays Tassone with a distinct style and an absolutely fascinating empathy. Tassone is the villain of the story in every capacity except for the fact that he's also the main character, and Bad Education, which initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, switches halfway through from a gleeful true-crime recounting to an unexpectedly mournful character study. Particularly fun (and then achingly sad) to watch is Tassone's jovial camaraderie with Gluckin turn instantly sour as their house of cards starts to topple. 

The details of the crime and its court proceedings were written about everywhere from the local papers to the New York Times, but Bad Education takes most of its inspiration from Robert Kolker's riveting 2004 New York Magazine article "The Bad Superintendent," which chronicles the fall of Tassone and his legacy. Liberties were taken with the film, of course. Roslyn's Skywalk already existed before the scandal, but the film uses it as an example of the school's excessive spending; in reality, it was the leaky ceilings which incited the original investigation. Bhargava's character was an invention, and there was obviously no confrontation between her and Tassone in real life, but she is a composite meant to represent the various reports that came out in the school's newspaper that first alerted people to the incident. The charges that initially alerted the school's auditor to spending discrepancies were made by Pam Gluckin's son (played with hysterical goofiness by American Vandal's Jimmy Tatro), but they were purchases from a Home Depot, not an Ace Hardware as depicted in the film. 

The true story, at times, even borders on the salacious. Aside from dipping his hands into his school's coffers for years, Tassone was revealed to have been living with another man in an apartment in Manhattan, at an address which he'd faked on the school's financial records to appear as a word processing company. Aside from even that, he had also bought a house with another man, an exotic dancer who, in the film, he met on a work trip. It's Jackman's final scenes with his younger partner, a character based on his real-life boyfriend and played by Rafael Casal, that are the most emotionally affecting, a last dance in a gay club to Moby's "In This World" as the feds snatch up Tassone's colleagues one by one. Bad Education didn't even need to handle its material with such deftness and grace, and could have been content with just delighting in the true crime of it all, but that's the kind of thing that turns a good movie into a great one. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.