The Hugh Jackman vehicle Bad Education (2019), Cory Finley’s second feature after Thoroughbreds (2017), picked up a lot of buzz at Toronto, and it’s easy to see why. It’s well-made, based on a true story, and deconstructs Jackman’s public persona. But though his character, US public school embezzlement record-holding superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone, is supposed to be opaque until late in the game, I never got the feeling that he stopped being opaque. That reflects a problem with Mike Makowsky’s script.
Two things keep Tassone’s scheme going year after year: complicit righthand woman Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney, slowly but surely getting typecast), and his own incredible career success: Under his care, the success of Roslyn High School translates directly into higher local property values, and what parent wouldn’t want Ivy League kids and a valuable home? But sure enough, Gluckin’s benefactees (who are all her relatives) get careless with the moolah, and she’s the first domino to fall.
We really only learn three things about Tassone: He’s gay and having an affair with a former student (Rafael Casal), skims millions off the top of his budget, and actually does care deeply about education. Some reviewers have picked up on Tassone’s closeted and secret relationships, respectively, as symbolic of his duplicitous depths. Problem is, according to the man himself it just ain’t true: He never denied being gay, and his—open—relationship wasn’t with a former pupil.
The film needs that extra (very problematic) moralizing boost because, as Richard Brody astutely notes, “Tassone the gifted and devoted educator and Tassone the embezzler are left utterly unconnected, and the movie has little interest in the former.” I happen to think that the film has little interest in Tassone the man at all, but Brody’s main point stands. Perhaps the film had trouble linking the two, or portraying Tassone as a fully complex human beyond these two facets, because neither the film nor the article on which it’s based received input from Tassone himself. We only see him as others see him, so he appears static and lifeless. His mood shifts (excellent work from Jackman) are just changes in tactics, unreflective of any inner state.
This empty center could’ve been filled by a broader social critique, and I agree with Brody that neglecting the educational-industrial complex is a huge missed opportunity. What we get instead is neither fish nor fowl—an empty character study devoid of sociohistorical context.