Pages Navigation Menu

"No matter where you go, there you are."


LFF 2019 Review: Bad Education – “Dripping with righteous anger”

The look on my face when I realise this is the only photo available for this film!

The sound of Greta Thunberg’s name is enough to make most cheer and some fume. As the poster child for the climate change movement, her clear voice acts as a necessary flea in the ear of the old order, shaming them into doing better.

There’s a touch of the Thunberg in Bad Education, Cory Finley’s follow-up to his successful indie debut Thoroughbreds. Bad Education is a dramatic, prestige project starring fine actors, including recent Oscar-winner Allison Janney and Hugh Jackman.

Bad Education tells a story that would drive Thunberg to distraction. It concerns corruption and collusion…albeit writ smaller, in an elite public (so, State) school system in the Long Island of the 1980s. Jackman plays Frank Tassone, the pristinely dressed and impeccably mannered school superintendent. Tassone’s job is to spend the money that comes in from the government, businesses and donees to ensure that the schools provide high-quality education (i.e. nice equipment and a chance for pupils to make a run at Harvard and Yale). In this arena Tassone wields real power, meticulously running the department, and in order to do so, he and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Janney) have access to millions of dollars. When quietly tenacious journalism student Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) starts digging into some spurious spending, Tassone’s reputation crumbles, revealing a very ugly truth.

Bad Education is simply a brutal dissection of a compromised system. Finley never allows for sentimentality – this is a study in the dangers of vanity. Tassone is such an unbecoming character from the first, that it’s clear why the always likeable Jackman wanted the role. Gluckin isn’t spared either, and Janney gets to play manipulative, selfish and greedy in the style of the Real Housewives. Many other actors subject themselves to being characters in Finley’s firing line, notably Annaleigh Ashford (currently brilliant in Netflix’s Unbelievable) as Gluckin’s dim niece and Rafael Casal as a former student of Tassone’s. To say more would diminish the effect of the twists in writer Mike Makowsky’s screenplay, all the more resonant as Makowsky lived through the events described. It’s a pity that the script’s vitriolic need to punish can never be satiated, even by complete character assassination.

Finley so stylishly marries his visuals (with angles of such fine craftsmanship it’s as if he used a spirit level) with a commentary on middle-American greed that the finished product feels a bit staccato. At no point is the audience permitted to like or identify with any of the players; they are either masquerading as ‘good’, or are out-and-out selfish narcissists quick to blame others. And yet Finley fills the film with a beguiling tension as the story enters through Tassone’s pristine veneer into his dark, secret heart. Without giving anything away, some of the treatment that Tassone receives could act as a mitigating factor for his actions, but Finley refuses to let his lead off the hook. Jackman is entirely believable as Tassone and produces a fine serious performance. This is not the showman, nor the gruff mutant, but something new: a fickle paper-thin person building his life on a precarious house-of-cards.

Bad Education takes an ice-cold, judgmental approach to a true story and is an apt showcase for Finley’s perfect staging. It is a shame that it prioritises visual clarity at the expense of character study. But then, perhaps in these times, an unflinching eye is what’s needed, instead of helplessly watching people abuse children’s futures, Finley’s film is dripping with righteous anger. Thunberg would approve.

Check out all of our London Film Festival coverage
Next PostPrevious Post


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.