It was one of the biggest scandals to hit a school in the history of, well, schools, but the early-aught embezzlement of the Long Island Roslyn school district mostly went forgotten until the newly released HBO movie Bad Education with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. And though the cable channel gussies things up in the name of drama and sexiness, its core tenets—a pair of trusted public servants who turned a less-than-stellar district into one of the top five in the nation while stealing millions—ring true and salacious enough that it's hard to look away.
Beneath it all, Bad Education is a secret journalism film, or at least one that understands the power of the press. It was the school paper that broke the story of Frank Tassone (here played by Jackman) and Pam Gluckin (Janney) funneling taxpayer funds into beach homes and face lifts, nice cars and expensive suits; national outlets followed after. Director Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky spirit the student journo character Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) into existence to help us along, but her low-stakes position at a student paper turned high stakes pursuit of fact and truth is inspiring, even if she's ultimately a broad amalgamation.
Jackman, meanwhile, hits highs as a teacher led astray by fears of aging and image. In tandem with Janney's always remarkable skills, Bad Education sings. It's almost hard to hate them for what they do, particularly as we're constantly reminded that they got results, dammit! Ray Romano as school board president Bob Spicer makes sure we never forget it through real-life college admission stats and skyrocketing home prices in the school's district, and there's something about how neither Tassone nor Gluckin ever forgets a student or their interests that shows us they cared deeply once.
There's a bit of teacher worship to be found as well, particularly through a stirring late-act speech wherein Jackman reminds us these people hold our hands and literally gift us with information through long hours and low pay—only to be forgotten by students climbing the ladder.
Of course, that's no reason to steal from a school, nor does it excuse meandering subplots that could have been covered through dialogue. Still, it's the Jackman/Janney duo we came to see, and they do not disappoint in what's otherwise a perfectly fine film.
+Jackman and Janney; journalism
-Stalls now and then; pointless side characters
Directed by Finley
With Jackman, Janney and Viswanathan
HBO, TV-MA, 103 min.