“BAD EDUCATION” (103 minutes; R; available on HBO) — Eons ago, Mark Vogler, a fellow reporter at the Winter Haven News-Chief, where I had my first newspaper job, assembled an astounding series called “The Bad Apples of Education.” Vogler detailed how numerous folks with criminal backgrounds somehow had landed teaching jobs in public schools all across the country; he should have won a Pulitzer.
But what if the really good apples — say, county-level administrators whose enthusiasm. bright ideas and smartly executed programs had motivated their students and pushed their schools to new heights of academic excellence — simultaneously were secretly bad apples?
That’s what’s up with “Bad Education,” based on a true story, with Hugh Jackman turning in a nuanced, engaging performance as school superintendent Frank Tassone. Nominally a shiny, happy guy, his policies and go-get-’em encouragement in the early 2000s helped graduates of high schools in the wealthy Long Island community of Roslyn, N.Y., land an unusually large number of spots in Ivy League colleges. As it turns out, some of Tassone’s colleagues, including Pam (Allison Janney, also terrific), are skimming from the district’s funds. And the chicanery and collateral damage expand from there, with Ray Romano as a school board president, embarrassed and saddened by the illegal misbehavior, who pushes the wrongdoers to do the right thing.
The school-scandal story alone makes a fascinating, particularly American saga. But “Bad Education,” directed by playwright Cory Finley and written by Mike Makowsky, who was a Roslyn student during the years covered by the film, is also about the power of the press, and why journalism matters. It’s an important message during an era of failing newspapers and politicians who relentlessly attack any news organizations that don’t worship at the altar of those particular pols. It’s a school newspaper reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) whose relentless pursuit of the story – asking the right questions, figuring out how and where to dig for the relevant facts and buried receipts — brings to light a routine series of thefts that later were estimated to total about $11 million.
The film’s pacing is leisurely enough to let us get to know, and care about, these characters, but filled with enough twists and turns to keep us engaged. And several fantasy scenes and imaginative transition sequences – in one case, from a prison cell to school hallways – suggest the extent to which Tassone, a Columbia University grad who was living a double life in more ways than one, and the others were residing in a world of their own making. It was one where they felt entitled to the skimming and somehow believed that it would go on forever, undetected and with no consequences. And it probably would have, had not an intrepid young reporter intervened.