‘Bad Education’ Uses a True Story of Theft to Peek Into the Darker Shades of Suburbia

Has there ever been a more tempting avenue for easy money than the all-coveted company credit card? That’s how high crime begins in HBO’s “Bad Education,” which is based on one of those true cases so absurd in its human follies that it could never be spun out of fiction. In the 2000s Frank Tassone was not some power player politician or Wall Street operative. He was the superintendent of a Long Island school district priding itself on training its local, affluent kids to then transfer to Ivy League institutions. All that glitters is rarely gold and behind the great statistics Tassone oversaw a corrupt operation where millions were taken for nothing more than personal desire. Suburbia again becomes a terrain for base human behavior hiding behind high class manners.

Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is introduced to us as the model educator. While overseeing the Roslyn school district of Long Island he takes the time to speak with special needs students, talk to classes and meet with parents. He is beloved by both parents and colleagues for his confident, stylish demeanor and the fact that he’s pushed Roslyn to the highest district rankings. His second in command is Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who unbeknown to the district board has been using the company card to charge a few extra, quite personal expenses from home remodeling to gifts for friends. When Gluckin’s son is caught buying a whole truckload of items Tassone is forced to acknowledge the theft and forces Gluckin to resign. But when Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan), a student writing for the Roslyn school paper the Hilltop Beacon, starts snooping around she uncovers a paper trail leading to even wider embezzlement, much of it implicating Tassone himself.

“Bad Education” is the latest profile of the American dream getting twisted from Cory Finley, the young director who in 2018 profiled two privileged teens descending into murderous boredom in “Thoroughbreds.” Plenty of films and TV shows have wandered the plush homes of the well-to-do, but “Bad Education” decides to turn its glare towards suburbia’s educators. Writer Mike Makowsky bases his crisp screenplay on the New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker (for those who want all the raw details). Finley’s elegant, glossy visual style courtesy of regular collaborator Lyle Vincent gives the world of school district offices the ambiance of a shady brokerage firm. The best commentaries on the underworld ways of the upper class function as tragedies of manners. Tassone carries on like a would-be politician, using charm and a razor-sharp memory to build confidence in students and colleagues. Board members like Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) are essentially acolytes, while another stooge played by Jeremy Shamos easily breaks into tears whenever Tassone rakes him over the coals. Everyone sees him as a natural leader guiding them to great heights. In a masterful touch of irony, when Rachel interviews Tassone about an upcoming campus renovation project, it is he who advises her to not write “puff pieces.” He could never imagine that her first serious work of journalism would expose his operation. This is one of Hugh Jackman’s great roles, full of ego and deluded self-assurance. 

How the scandal unfolds is done with an acute sense of the absurd. Finley understands how in the real world a lot of crimes are done for reasons so mundane or impulsive that how they’re uncovered can turn out to be just as shockingly simple. A trip to buy home supplies exposes Gluckin, which provokes a firestorm in the office. The ensuing scandal then builds new layers that later fall away. Tassone’s first reaction is to simply cover up the theft and issue a false public announcement claiming Gluckin resigned due to health reasons. This is merely the catalyst for Rachel’s investigation, which not only begins to uncover questionable expenditures, but serves as Finley’s way to study how in communities where all seems perfect, it’s usually too good to be true. It is in the zones of the American upper class that some strange, almost Victorian attitudes prevail. Tassone for example is gay, and lives with a partner, yet when people notice he wears a wedding ring he spins a false story about being a widower. However even his partner becomes a victim of lies as Tassone takes on a younger lover in Nevada. What Finley fashions through this character is a powerful metaphor. We are conditioned to believe success depends on specific strategies and patterns in this country, where what school one attends will define lifestyle and income. But even after reaching a place of respect and influence, Tassone and Gluckin couldn’t help but indulge in the ease of taking money from the district to continue inflating their access to material things. In one of the film’s best scenes Tassone confesses to Spicer how it all began with one accidental purchase barely exceeding twenty dollars, and when no one seemed to notice or care, he just kept going. Plastic surgery, first class flights, expensive suits, it all became more attainable for Tassone, not simply out of greed, but because it also allowed him to maneuver more comfortably among the affluent of Long Island.

Finley again proves to be a director of elegant pacing. He likes to let characters sit together, think and boil. Allison Janney has some acutely intense scenes where she tries to dismiss Rachel condescendingly or later lets Tassone know he can’t just get rid of her so easily, because he’s just as complicit as her. She’s not a villain by any means, just another person who knowingly stole because it was possible. What’s the injury to anyone if you spend a little on a shower head? Nobody seems to have a sense of guilt because no one is being exceedingly hurt, although the high school’s ceilings are leaking and somehow nothing is ever done to fix the problem. “Bad Education” flirts with the satirical edge of being about the U.S. itself, where a vast accumulation of wealth doesn’t always lead to strong infrastructure, as the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated. 

Finley proves again he is a director who masterfully chronicles a specific place and sector of American society. There is not a single false note in this movie. He feels at home in the kind of pristine neighborhoods of two-floor brick houses with wide driveways nestled by forest. Anyone who has ever been in a school paper will instantly recognize the debates between Rachel and her editor-in-chief, Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff), who just cares about getting into a good school but then feels obligated to run Rachel’s explosive findings. 

“Bad Education” is not only a tale of true crime but an endlessly intriguing character study. We are not absorbed so much by the actions as by the motivations of Tassone and Gluckin. They did not steal because they had to but because they could. It’s the kind of lesson only good drama can truly explore beyond any classroom.

Bad Education” airs April 25 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.