What motivates a person to embezzle millions of dollars from a public-school system?
Is it greed? Power? Or just the fact that it’s so easy—too easy—to get away with?
Inspired by the true story of what happened in the Roslyn, New York, school district in 2002, Bad Education tells the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his business manager Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). This dynamic duo was beloved by their students, staff and parents … until it was discovered that they had systematically bilked the school system for millions of dollars.
Frank is fastidious. Obsessed with his appearance—the best clothes, the perfectly coiffed hair and the latest youthful look plastic surgery can offer. He keeps his figure svelte by eschewing carbs in favor of unappealing diet smoothies. He flies first class to Europe and has a swanky apartment in the city. Frank is all razzle dazzle. He knows the students by name. He leads a book club with the doting moms while deftly side-stepping their amorous advances. Roslyn students graduate and go on to the best colleges. They have the best test scores. They are number four in the country (but not number one as Frank is fond of lamenting). Everyone adores Frank. Once again, Jackman is the greatest showman.
Pam is his opposite. She’s loud and brassy with a Long Island accent that lasts for days and a style so nouveau riche it’s amazing no one questions how she could support the way she is living on a public-school administrator’s salary. For Pam, who worked her way from an entry-level job, skimming the finances is second nature. When her niece (Annaleigh Ashford) asks her for money so she can buy her son at PlayStation for Christmas, Pam gives her the school’s corporate card. “It will all be reconciled at the end of the month. I’ve been doing this a long time,” Pam assures her.
The school board, led by Ray Romano’s Bob Spicer, wants their budget approved. They like being top-rated and like even more seeing their property values go up as the school system continues to receive accolades. They don’t ask the hard questions because they don’t want to see their way of life changed.
Directed by Cory Finley and written by Mike Makowsky, who grew up in Roslyn amid the actual scandal, the movie seeks to be dark satire and skewering social commentary about money, politics and privilege. What are we as a society willing to ignore if looking the other way is in our best interests? But Bad Education is more about the dogged determination of one high school student who uncovered what a self-serving school board and an unquestioning, complaint auditor could not. Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan) grows suspicious that the school can spend millions on a flashy skywalk to connect the high school buildings when so many of the existing buildings desperately need repair. “It will look great. It will make all our lives easier. Thank you. The end,” Pam tells Rachel about the skywalk. Rachel knows that the school system’s purchase orders are public record, and she’s able to connect the dots that many of the lavish expenses lead to nowhere. The more she’s questioned, the more defensive Pam becomes. “We come here every day at the crack of dawn because we care. We care about providing you with the proper quality education because we are good people. Because we want you to have a good life,” she says indignantly.
It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. I’m the treasurer for my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop, and I don’t even reimburse thirty dollars without a receipt. But millions of dollars of expenses were being pushed through to shell corporations without question.
As expected, Jackman and Janney are terrific. Both actors have the innate ability to truly disappear into the character they are playing. There’s no trace of their many iconic roles—be it Wolverine or C.J. Cregg—in their performances. Jackman brings a nuanced sympathy to a man who has never been truly honest with himself. His whole life is a series of smoke and mirrors. When the façade begins to crack, Jackman truly shines. Romano is also a standout as the school board president who realizes he’s been unknowingly complicit for years.
But Viswanathan is the true revelation here. Her wide-eyed performance as Rachel follows the money and uncovers the truth is the thrust of the story and Viswanathan captures that mix of being sure of what you are doing even though you know it’s going to make your life harder. No matter how much Rachel is warned to stop pursuing the story, she doesn’t stop. “If you go public with something you don’t fully understand, it will come back on you hard,” Frank admonishes.
Exactly why it took a high school student to finally uncover years of deception right beneath the surface is a lesson with even more resonance right now. In too many instances, journalist have stopped asking the hard questions.
Bad Education asks the tough questions and gives us the uneasy answers.
Director: Cory Finley
Writer: Mike Makowsky
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Annaleigh Ashford, Ray Romano
Release Date: April 25 on HBO. The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW and HBO GO.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and Assistant TV Editor for Paste. (She writes about movies, too.) You can follow her on Twitter.