“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” - William Butler Yates
In one of the scenes in “Bad Education”, Assistant School Superintendent of Roslyn High School, Pam Gluckin (Alison Janney) storms into her high school administration office in her gleaming “Corvette”car. To her dismay, she sees her entire staff and colleagues waiting for her outside her office as news of her impropriety surfaces. Pam who is ultra-confident, warm and a community hero is shaken to her guts.
Can an internal school newspaper with a readership of 15 bring down a whole high school education administration of a district in the US? Can state school authorities embezzle funds to the tune of millions of dollars over years without getting noticed? Are school authorities themselves complacent when it comes to tax payer money?
“Bad Education” takes us into this exciting and yet intriguing world of American State Schools and their administration. Based on an article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker which was published in the “New York” magazine in 2004, the film is a riveting study of corruption and greed in the American high school administration.
At the same time, it’s also a great acting masterclass led by Hugh Jackman and Alisson Janney. It also stars Ray Romano, Indian-American talent Geraldine Vishwanathan and a host of supporting characters. The film is directed by Cory Finley (The Thoroughbreds). Its produced by HBO. The film is now streaming on Hotstar/Disney+ in India
The Plot of “Bad Education”
The Roslyn High School in Long Island is governed by Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Alisson Janney). They are well known and highly respected by the community and the school board. A young student Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Vishwanathan) is assigned to do an article on the new ‘Skywalk’ being built for millions of dollars for the school. As she starts her research and goes in depth of the accounts of the school, a large embezzlement scandal breaks out! The repercussion of this changes the lives of the Roslyn administration forever.
The world of “Bad Education”
The story is set in the Roslyn High school administration and the school itself which is based in Long Island, USA. This is based on a true story. In fact, the screenplay is written by Mike McKowski who himself is an alumni of the school. The story talks about the celebrity status which Schools Superintendents command in the community and the good they are doing by building education.
But at the same time, it exposes the rot in the system when greed takes over. Something which struck me is the inter-personal dynamics of the staff and management of Roslyn High School. How do they watch out for each other? How do they take decisions when it comes to finances? And how they run for cover when shit hits the fan! The film is a character study of people in high power in the education sector and how imperfect they are. But what makes this story interesting to the viewer is that it’s told from an “investigative journalistic” perspective of Roslyn student Rachel Bhargava. As she uncovers the rut layer by layer, it builds curiosity in the story and keeps you invested.
The Genius of Alisson Janney
Alisson Janney is a celebrated talent. Her body of work is just outstanding. In “Juno”, she played the role of an over possessive mom struck with her daughter’s early pregnancy with poise. In “Bad Company” she creates a chameleon like character who doesn’t even blink an eyelid while stealing money from the administration but at the same time makes her presence felt in each board meeting.
She breaks down like a house of cards when she is exposed and then you see a different person altogether. In one scene she utters, “They can’t do anything to me, I have been holding this place together”. This touch of arrogance while being a thief is just so real! Without Alisson Janney, “Bad Company” will not have its big surprises.
Good Bye Wolverine!
Hugh Jackman has totally de-constructed his persona in this movie. He looks, talks and acts like a senior school administrator. Jackman brings humanity to the part of Frank Tassone.
He will lie through you and you won’t notice. It’s the first time when Jackman has played a character with so many fatal flaws! The real scandal is him but he ducks and lets his juniors take the fall.
In one of the scenes he tells Ray Romano (who plays Board President of Roslyn), “Years ago I used someone else’s credit card for a $20 for a Pizza and it was fine!”. Just like Pam, Frank’s character also takes a sense of normalcy in his illegal behavior. This is Hugh Jackman’s first ‘human’ character who is adorably miserable.
Performances in “Bad Education”
Apart from Jackman and Janney, there is some outstanding work by newcomer Geraldine Vishwanathan who plays student/journalist Rachel.
Her curiosity is written on her face and she enjoys digging information. Her confidence in herself is shown well. In one of the scenes, Pam informs her that the bid documents are hidden in the records in the basement and it will take very long to find them. Rachel just remarks,” My next period is free”.
Ray Romano as Bob Spicer plays his small part as the clueless Board Chief with effectiveness. He goes scot-free but is also part of the problem. The rest of the cast is also very engaging.
“Bad Education” is a free spirited and yet very tight story which needs to be told. It works because its characters are brilliant. But they are human at the same time. They do illegal things but are also not ‘pure criminals’ and have done some solid work in their field. Cory Finley’s Direction creates a unique world. At 100 minutes, it’s an engaging film with a good message. I would give this movie a 7 out of 10.