Bad Education is now streaming on HBO.
By Palmer Rubin
“We do this because we’re good people.”
The really boring way to go about a film like Bad Education to have a lot of preachy messaging that’s more about soothing egos and reassuring people that you couldn’t possibly be like the lead character Frank Tassone. You make it obvious from the start that Tassone is a pathological liar and an embezzler, you frame it as a David-and-Goliath story with our student journalist being opposed at every opportunity, ending with a sweeping monologue where she stresses the importance of integrity in journalism.
This is not that movie, and I’m very glad it’s not that movie, even when it feels like it’s veering often close to something approaching a binary state in how it views corruption, fraud, embezzlement, what have you. The easy movie to make points the finger at a single individual, that bad individual is gone, everything’s good now. We are quite lucky that the film’s screenwriter was a student of the high school this takes place in when this exact scandal happened. We’re even luckier that the director chosen for the job is one Cory Finley.
Finley has only made one other film, the excellent Thoroughbreds. That one was mismarketed as a horror movie (there isn’t a single jumpscare to be found) and was way more a dark comedy of manners, deeply stylized to be a tale of the haves and the have-nots designed to actually make implications instead of tease. Two high school girls, spoiled rich and bored as hell, decide to kill one of their dads for fun, and that was a film that should not have worked as well as it did. Somehow, Finley took a film in a subject that would normally be lurid and turned it into self-examination. You couldn’t watch that and vacation in the Hamptons without feeling exposed.
It’s interesting to watch Finley change gears for this, because I was so used to the stylization in his previous film. He had never actually been on a single film set before directing that one (having had a background in theater), and so it felt unconventional and fresh in a way a lot of debuts don’t often get to be. Over there, he was aping every filmmaker who filmed about horrors abound in the suburbs. Over here, he’s found the intersection between Alan Pakula and early Alexander Payne and gotten the thread through the needle of both. This turns out to be far closer to Election combined with All The President’s Men. What would normally be treated as B-movie fluff gets the prestige drama treatment, and it gets treated as such because nobody involved is interested in blaming the events of the film on a single individual. It lays all of the Long Island nouveau riche to blame. Frank Tassone is a product of his environment, and that’s the thesis statement.
Frank Tassone is the wildly popular superintendent of one of those high school districts that makes everyone outside of it groan. One of the wealthiest cities in the country, chock full of helicopter parents planning out their hellspawns’ futures from cradle to grave. Tassone is assailed with constant tiger moms hoping her small precocious lil moppet can run a law firm by the time he’s in diapers. It grates on him, but Tassone is at once such a people pleaser and a narcissist that he has to indulge them both for how much he hates it and how much it flames his ego.
Tassone is also, fatally, obsessively one of those types who treats the workplace like it’s a self-help program, constantly spouting off empty aphorisms like a machine gun. He’s like a marionette with Tony Robbins at the controls, and a chance encounter with a student journalist, and him not being able to keep his mouth shut, results in this entire diseased structure built around him crashing to a heap.
It also helps that Tassone is played by Hugh Jackman, playing completely against type. Instead of the massive twelve-pack of Marvel’s favorite mutant, he’s sporting a paunch and male pattern baldness. Finley and company film him and everyone else to highlight every wrinkle, and he obsessively drinks charcoal smoothies and avoids carbs like the plague. The image he’s built up for himself, as the world’s most perfect person, is both there to be broken down and to serve as an indictment of the kind of conditions that’ll spawn a Frank Tassone. Jackman is all eye twitches and passive-aggressiveness, one of those people who knows how to twist people whichever way he wants them to because he knows how to use social norms against them. People are so conflict-avoidant, so eager for decorum, so terrified of upsetting the apple cart, that they can be easily persuaded to commit federal crimes if it means avoiding and argument (and padding the bottom line, no less).
The brilliant bit, where the film threads the needle, is both in our intrepid student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan, playing the foil and the film’s only halfway selfless character with gusto) discovering the truth Woodward/Bernstein style and the rest of Tassone’s cronies talking themselves out of holding themselves accountable. That’s the really insidious bit of the whole scheme, mind. It’s a bunch of middle-aged adults failing the marshmallow test over and over. With the corporate card right there, they just can’t help themselves with the smaller expenses that morph into larger expenses. Never mind where the money is coming from, and with every purchase comes a better excuse, a more convoluted way to justify the increasingly unhinged antics they’re pulling off, till it may as well spell “kleptomania” in big neon letters.
Criminality, the film posits, is not bred in a person with Snidely Whiplash-esque cackling and a damsel in distress on the train tracks. Criminality is excuses, especially with how the number four school in the whole nation can get away with it because they’re number four. There’s very few homes near Roslyn High School worth less than seven figures, even though it’s a public school. Think about how resources are allocated to school systems in this country long enough and suddenly you realize who the really big thieves really are. What does Roslyn need that much money for anyway, with seven figure homes abound? That’s the point, and that’s the vacuum with which a Frank Tassone will increasingly find himself not being able to help himself. As the school’s status improves, the property rates go up, and it doesn’t help that Ray Romano’s school board president is also the town’s foremost realtor.
What I really enjoy is that Frank, in spite of his massive screen time, isn’t actually the film’s protagonist. It’s actually Viswanathan’s Rachel who’s the protagonist, despite getting way less screentime. It’s sort of a reversal of Silence of the Lambs in the way the mystery is ultimately solved. She’s a background character and an audience surrogate at the same time, while Finley slowly dissects Tassone into powder, as we discover in real-time exactly how far he’s gone into this myopic pattern. The film’s big punchline (likely fictionalized) is a horrifying scene between Jackman and Romano where the former confesses to the latter that he only went to these lengths with these ridiculous expenses because he felt like he deserved to live like the people whose incomes he was buoying singlehandedly. Sure, Frank is 100% a giant prick, but he’s not the only one.
The tightrope the film walks is giving Frank a motivation without endorsing it or insulting the audience’s intelligence, and I think the film does so beautifully. Frank’s personality never changes, he doesn’t ever shift to cackling laughter and rubbing his hands together, he just keeps doing really awful things to people while coming up with more and more pathetic excuses. Again, look where he lives, look what the people are like, look at the rolling factories that are parents and the way they treat their children. The most terrifying scene of the whole film to me is right as another character gets caught for their own crimes and Frank is informed of it, a scene that I’m almost certain was supposed to be a parody of George Bush’s behavior when 9/11 happened (the film takes place in 2002, so who knows).
Frank sits with a bunch of tiny little kids asking them what they want to do with their school year and a tiny little girl no older than six responds “I want to be a cardiovascular surgeon just like my mother.” Her wording is so perfect that it scares the living daylights out of Frank, and it should scare us too. How does a six year old know about that? And so the film takes aim at gifted student programs even as it eviscerates Frank in fiction. Right after this, he’s informed of the first of a series of dominos that will lead to his professional collapse. An even more devastating scene is much later when a helicopter mom demands her son’s entry into the same program and they all discover at the same time that the kid has special needs. It might as well be Bush Junior reading the story about the pet goat in response to our worst terrorist attack, over and over again, a seemingly harmless person harming everyone in their wake simply by existing long enough.
Again, Finley isn’t saying you should excuse Frank because he lives in a city full of social climbers and egomaniacs. It’s that Frank is enabled by a city of said social climbers and egomaniacs, and they sacrifice him to the proverbial altar without actually fixing anything. A recurring thematic image is a leaking ceiling that isn’t fixed because of Frank’s increasingly bizarre personal expenses (and trust me, it reaches near Joe Exotic levels of insanity with him), and our last shot of it results in a cutaway of that same ceiling bursting through completely instead of being fixed up. It’s the system that’s rotten, Finley and company posit, and taking out one bad egg doesn’t account for all the others.
Anyway, Bad Education is a film that takes its sweet time making its points, and relies a lot on misdirection to lead you to the points it ultimately wants to make about people. Maybe Hugh Jackman didn’t get the memo about this film’s context, considering his close friendship with one Jared Kushner, but Cory Finley sure as hell did. It’s a film that often hurts to watch because it won’t let you get off easy. And Finley may be the filmmaker most eager to roast suburbia in an open fire, now that he’s done so for two consecutive films that burn its subject matter at the stake. It’s easy to imagine that terrible people will always make it obvious, but terrible people make excuses and rationalize everything, and it’s the only way they know how to live with themselves. It’s why Frank responds to his eventual and inevitable comeuppance not with anger, but with abject confusion, wondering why anyone would ever want to punish him for breaking the law. He got to do so that many times before being caught, so why must he be caught at all?
I give Bad Education a B+.