Bad Education ★★★★½

During my senior year at the College of the Holy Cross, the administration was absolutely ecstatic. USA Today had just come out with a new ranking of Catholic colleges in the country. We were named number two. Two! No one in the world has ever been this happy to be in second place since the Pepsi execs realized how much money they would make from their product’s prominent placement in Alexander Payne’s Election solely to mock its second place status.

Yet this exuberance at being almost the best lies at the heart of Cory Finley's Bad Education. The film tells the true story of an elite Long Island public school in 2002 that has just been named the fourth best public school in the country. The community couldn’t be more ecstatic. The film opens with the disembodied voice of a school board member addressing the community as they celebrate their recent ascent in the rankings. An especially enthusiastic introduction is given for the superintendent, Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the man felt responsible for its rise. The words of his introduction are juxtaposed against shots of an empty football stadium, empty hallways, empty classrooms. This is not your typical high school, nor your typical high school movie; our hero won’t be found on the field or in the classroom. Instead, the next shot is of Dr. Tassone preparing his appearance in the bathroom like a star doing fixing his make-up check before the big show. The camera then follows closely behind Tassone as he approaches, as if capturing a prize fighter’s approach to the ring. He is greeted with thunderous applause, but the camera pauses, noticeably on a banner behind him reading “Ranked #4,” as if to say, “What’s the big deal? You’re only number 4.”

The big deal, as often in life, is money. Being #4 is enough to bring the school and its students money and attention: success. The film, occasionally intercutting images of gorgeous Long Island mansions, makes painfully clear that the strength of a town’s public schools can make or break the town’s economic success. And for the school board members, many of whom are involved real estate, they have never seen such high property values (or profits) since Tassone took charge of things. Nor have the students matriculated into nearly as many Ivy League schools before, with a letter of recommendation from Tassone seemingly bringing assured acceptance. Add to this that Tassone with his selfless and community-oriented focus holds the rare distinction of being beloved by all teachers and staff and there is no one who could think to say a bad word about him.

And for good reason. Tassone walks the walk. He spends his nights studying teachers’ names, their classes, their hobbies like one of his students studying vocabulary terms. While at an education conference in Vegas, he’s in the front row taking notes and chatting with presenters; the teachers who came with him, meanwhile, are playing craps in the casinos.

The celebratory portrait I’ve painted so far leaves little in the way of conflict, of plot. HBO has billed the film as a dark comedy/drama, but its more accurate to describe it as a tragedy in the vein of the ancient Greeks. Like its Classical forebears, Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, etc., this might as well have been titled Dr. Tassone, as the film devotes itself to the gradual unraveling of its protagonist’s secrets (some salacious, some nefarious) while never compromising its commitment to portraying its protagonist’s humanity. It’s a deeply sympathetic film, one which I’m sure is controversial in the Long Island community where Tassone worked.

I hesitate to say more about the plot as it is best experienced blind, though to mirror a theme from the film, what is in the public record cannot really be secret. But again, like the best of Greek tragedies, the biggest of Tassone’s secrets are unraveled unwittingly by his own agency: his urging of a young sophomore girl to dig her teeth deeper into journalism. While the exact details of this side plot differ from the real-life story, it is forgivable because the dramatic irony here is so exceedingly satisfying.

If the film falters anywhere, it is that while presenting Tassone as a good-hearted and good-intentioned human capable of deep love and whimsy even while he can intimidate along with the best of Hollywood’s toughest gangsters, the film fails to extend this approach to the rest of the cast. Allison Janey has made a career playing world-weary women who don’t seem to have a bone of compassion in their bodies (her role as Tonya’s mother in I, Tonya stands out), and here as Tassone’s right-hand woman, Pam Gluckin, she shines. But she is not given the full rounded-character treatment Tassone gets, often feeling more like a walking personification of unthinking greed. The same flatness of character goes for Gluckin’s niece (Annaleigh Ashford) and school board president Bob Spicer (a disgustingly mustachioed Ray Romano). This would have been a larger problem if Jackman weren’t so compelling in the lead, but he is.

Because where the film truly shines is in its use of a personal tragedy to outline larger societal problems. The film by no means justifies the actions that contribute to Tassone’s eventual fall, but certainly considers them worth discussing. What is it that Americans, particularly privileged, wealthy White Americans, want from their school system? Cultivation of creativity and curiosity? Social skills? Problem-solving? Help with basic arithmetic? No. The film argues, and argues compellingly, that providing a good education is secondary providing success, regardless of a student’s actual abilities and work ethic. Anything less than the best outcomes is unacceptable, yet no more than public funding should be afforded to this most important endeavor. Under such pressure, who wouldn’t crack?