The top administrators at the Roslyn, New York, school district seemed not only to understand this instinct but also to exploit it for their own personal gain. “Bad Education” explores their real-life embezzlement scheme, which came crashing down when the high-school newspaper broke the story in 2004. Spending nearly $8 million on a sky bridge to beautify a campus seems reasonable when you’re trying to exude an aura of success—when you’re the fourth-ranked district in the country, gunning for that No. 1 spot. With that much money flying around, skimming a little here and there for a bagel or jewelry or renovations on your beach house in the Hamptons is no biggie.
Director Cory Finley finds the dark humor within this scandal, which he depicts with wit, style and a terrific cast. Hugh Jackman does some of the best work of his long and varied career as the superintendent, Dr. Frank Tassone, whose charisma and polished image disguised a multitude of secrets. Jackman plays on his usual charm and looks to great effect. But there’s something sinister within the slickness that’s unsettling from the first time we see him, spritzing cologne and trimming nose hairs in the mirror of the boys’ bathroom in extreme close-up. Frank clearly cares deeply and works hard to recall names and personal details of students and parents alike throughout the district; we can still see glimmers of the calling that drew him to this challenging profession in the first place. Fundamentally, he’s a pleaser and he wants to be liked—yet increasingly, he savors the fame and power that come with being in a position of authority in an affluent community. And as Frank and his second-in-command (played brilliantly by a brash Allison Janney) find themselves squirming to survive when their $11.2 million scheme comes to light, their flaws and follies become even more glaringly evident.
Finley’s follow-up to “Thoroughbreds,” one of my favorite films of 2018, doesn’t seek to dazzle with sleek, showy camerawork like that film did. But it’s similarly interested in mining the depths of out darkest impulses, and doing so with sharp satire. (Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in Roslyn when the embezzlement scandal broke, wrote the script.) “Bad Education” also calls to mind the great Alexander Payne film “Election,” with its students who are smarter and savvier than you’d expect and teachers who aren’t as mature and responsible as you’d hope. Finley actually could have used a bit more of Payne’s sharp bite in tackling this material. Geraldine Viswanathan radiates a quiet but increasingly assertive confidence as the high school reporter whose tough questions and thorough document searches reveal the district’s financial irregularities. Just as compelling as what she finds is her internal debate over how to handle that information. She knows what’s the right thing to do—but what if that’s the wrong move for her future?