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Review: Bad Education (2020)

Bad Education (2020)

Directed by: Cory Finley

Premise: Based on a true story. The superintendent (Hugh Jackman) and administrative staff of a well-regarded school district are consumed by an embezzlement scandal that’s uncovered by a high school newspaper reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan).

What Works: Bad Education is a compelling story of corruption. What’s so interesting about this story is the way it juxtaposes the friendly outside polish with the institutional rot. Bad Education has a vivid feel for its setting. The movie takes place in a wealthy community and the schools reflect that; as presented to the public, the school system embodies everything that parents want for their children. The embezzlement scheme unfolds gradually and the audience sees how the superficial niceties conceal a selfish entitlement that runs through the leadership of the school district. That two-faced quality is represented in Bad Education’s great cast who play complex characters. The film is led by Hugh Jackman as superintendent Frank Tassone. Jackman turns up the charm and he makes its credible that Tassone and others got away with their embezzlement schemes for so long. But what is especially interesting about Tassone, as presented in this film, is that he clearly loved his job, was more than competent at it, and genuinely cared about the students. That makes his downfall tragic and this is reflected in a pair of supporting performances by Ray Romano and Geraldine Viswanathan. Romano plays the school board president who is close with the superintendent and he is let down as he realizes what Tassone has done. Viswanathan is cast as a high school student who discovers the embezzlement scheme and reports it in the school newspaper. With Viswanathan’s character we get a loss of innocence as she realizes that the man so idolized by the community is a fraud. Also notable are Allison Janney as the assistant superintendent and Annaleigh Ashford as her niece and a district clerk. Janney’s character is initially presented as a villain but our understanding of her changes while Ashford is a dimwitted accomplice who gets caught up in the scam. Ordinarily, stories of con artists being exposed elicit righteous joy in the audience but the complexity of the characters makes Bad Education heartbreaking instead.

What Doesn’t: The only aspect where Bad Education is really lacking is the ending. The film comes to an abrupt conclusion. The story spends a lot of time demonstrating the way the school district was enmeshed with the community; as one of the characters points out, local home property values are tied to the quality and integrity of the school district. It would have been interesting for the film to dramatize the fallout of the scandal for the community and what it did to the economics and self-image of the town.

DVD extras: Featurettes and interviews.

Bottom Line: Bad Education is a complex piece of work about moral and institutional failure. It dramatizes a true story of corruption with a firm grasp of the human qualities of its characters. The film doesn’t equivocate about their crimes but it does force the viewer to recognize the humanity of the people who committed them.

Episode: #818 (September 20, 2020)