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MR. SMITH GOES TO LEAVENWORTH
Premiering on HBO Nordic April 26.
I’m a huge fan of con man stories and an even bigger fan of journalism ones. So when a film rolls around that’s both, I’m in cinema heaven. BAD EDUCATION, directed with the kind of witty snark usually reserved for Jason Reitman films, is many things, including the aforementioned genres; but more importantly it’s a merciless skewering of a broken system that indulges toxic behavior.
Hugh Jackman plays Frank Tassone; a well liked, charming, and genuinely caring superintendent in Long Island. Under his guidance the Roslyn School District has risen the ranks to become the fourth best school in the state. In America, where every action in your life matters from the cradle onwards, such a distinction is worth its weight in gold. Students will get into better universities, enticing more families to send their kids to Roslyn, which in return drives up real estate value. If that sounds like fertile ground for a scheme, you’re not far off.
Based on a true story (which is even wilder than the already outlandish film), BAD EDUCATION joins in at the high watermark where Tassone’s wave begins to roll back. In the early 2000s, he and his associates used sneaky auditing and razzmatazz to steal millions from the school district. How they got caught would be spoiling the fun, so it’s best to go into this one cold. Yet despite their actions, Tassone was told to show genuine care for the students in his care, going as far as remembering the names and interests of everyone in the school.
It’s the ultimate irony. Had Tassone not given into greed, he would be remembered as a man who changed lives for the better. His legacy would be reserved to a small circle, eventually fading as the generations passed. But it would matter. That tragedy (and it is a tragedy) lingers in every frame of the film. If you didn’t know better, this was the kind of teacher anyone of us dreamed they had.
Allison Janney, a titan of film and television, plays Jackman’s second-in-command, Pam Gluckin. Deliciously evil, Janney mines the part for both wonderful dry humor and surprising pathos. What she and Tassone are doing is clearly wrong, but you can’t help but feel for her as she realizes that nobody will ever hire anyone of her age. No matter how educated or accomplished she is. Janney is superlative in the part, effortlessly balancing malice with empathy. There’s an entire history told through her learned swagger, and you get a sense of the compassion which drove her before greed took over. It’s not an easy act playing a sympathetic villain yet she makes it seem like second nature.
If the film was just about the hustle, it would be an entertaining and fun romp; a classic story about greed causing one’s downfall. Luckily the smart script by Mike Makowsky — himself a student in Roslyn during Tassone’s tenure — goes deeper into the problem. Just as the house of cards begins to falter, Tassone performs the first song and dance number to save his skin: If the school board goes public, it’ll ruin all the chances for Roslyn to reach first place in the district. Universities won’t even look at students graduating from there. Suddenly wealthy families will move elsewhere so they can enroll their kids into other districts. Before you know it, the formerly gentrified neighborhood would lose all property value.
You can practically see the blood drain from their NIMBY faces. It’s not long before a deal with the devil is made, and Tassone buys himself a few more weeks of leeway. The scene is played like a halftime speech as Jackman lulls the timid upper-middle-classians into a blissful stupor. Music soars, the camera pushes in on his taut face, and Jackman milks the scene for all its worth. This, as much as anything he’s made in the past, is his show and he doesn’t waste a minute of it. If BAD EDUCATION is remembered for anything (and there’s plenty to love), it will be for Jackman’s career best performance to date.
There’s a reason I mentioned Jason Reitman earlier, and that’s because the film owes a great deal to his depictions of the darker side to the American dream. For the past decade, Reitman has been the poet of the working class; delivering multiple masterpieces about different facets of a society hustling itself towards oblivion. BAD EDUCATION aims for that same high mark and almost — but not quite — succeeds. The opening hour is pure perfection, mainly thanks to the wondrous performances, including the one from Geraldine Viswanathan. But once the dominoes tumble, a strange lull falls over the film, making the freefall feel almost relaxing. Jackman plays up the creeping paranoia beautifully, yet I couldn’t help but want more.
It’s a case of reality being stranger than fiction. The story of Tassone’s collapse is a modern day Greek tragedy as told by the Coen Brothers; directors who probably could have mined the farce for even more.
But complaining about BAD EDUCATION is like being served a bespoke meal, complete with fine silverware and wine, and grumbling how it’s not unicorn meat. This is a great film; it will aggravate, amaze, and confound you all at once. Make it a priority to see it the moment it’s out.