REVIEW: ‘Bad Education’ examines largest public school embezzlement case but isn’t fair to all characters

The school system, at its fundamental level, is meant to educate, lead and inspire the youth. The past years have shown us countless controversies and meddling monetary flubs at the collegiate level. But the public school sphere has seemed rather untouched by the media’s scathing critique as of late. Maybe this is because of its innately smaller scope, as news typically circuits around the local community, rarely breaching beyond that. But, there has been one case at Roslynn High School that surpassed the local realm, and breaking records in the process. The Long Island school holds the grand prize of the largest public school embezzlement in U.S. history — a concept that director Cory Finley explores through the roots of human desire and greed in “Bad Education.”

We see this unfold through the hypocritical eyes of two major players in this deceitful game of taxpayer chess. Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney play superintendent Frank Tassone and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin of Rosslyn, respectively. Both are well-respected and are proud of their school’s statistical rankings as much as they are excited for some pricey developments. During a peak of success in Roslynn’s public school dominance, in comes student journalist Rachel Bhargava who senses malpractice amid the eerily squeaky-clean reputation of the school. Played with just the right amount of naivety by Geraldine Viswanathan, Rachel is given inspirational advice about journalistic integrity from Tassone early on, giving both the audience and Rachel some dreary foreshadowing in this dramatically ironic scandal. It just took some digging, and seeing this all unravel proves to be equally entertaining and introspectively reflective as we get a multitude of perspectives, giving a sense of humanity to these characters who are so disconnected from the rest of us. 

By pushing assumptions of involvement in these crimes in plain sight, the audience gets to investigate the reasons as to why they committed the crimes of tax embezzlement and not how they did it. This is something that director Cory Finley is keenly aware of, as we get multi-faceted looks at bits and pieces of this case, from its humble beginnings as a student’s puff piece for the school paper to the eventual punishment handed to those unethically involved. The feeling of familiarity felt within the story at large is no coincidence, as “Bad Education” is written by Mike Makowsky, an alum of Roslynn High School in the late 2000s, years after the scandal unfurled. 

Hugh Jackman hits a career-high here as well, giving an enduringly conceited performance of a complex character with conflicting motives. He starts off as Dr. Frank Tassone, the school’s hero, our trusty protagonist. But as we steep deeper into the inseparable entanglement between selfish desires and justifiable insecurities, we find something wholly relatable in Tassone’s actions. There is no right and wrong, as these are the types of characters and stories that make for prompt discussion and realizations after the credits roll. 

Given the incredible performance by Jackman, it is disappointing that his character’s sexuality is treated as purely a motive and almost a flaw in his downfall. This implication is one that I truly feel was unintentional, but it regardless feels like an afterthought. Especially when you are telling a true story, you have a certain amount of due diligence to tell the story with fairness and integrity, just as the journalist who initially broke the Roslynn embezzlement abided by.