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HBO’s sharp drama Bad Education gives Hugh Jackman a chance to squirm

The movie echoes the compulsive theft and self-delusion of Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!

As Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone, Hugh Jackman smiles broadly while standing in front of a backdrop with the school’s bulldog mascot. Image: HBO

The inciting incident in Cory Finley’s sharp, entertaining HBO drama Bad Education may strike some viewers as far too on-the-nose. When student journalist Rachel (Miracle Workers’ Geraldine Viswanathan) drops by the office of Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) to ask about a new school construction project, she only wants a casual, feel-good sound bite. “It’s just a puff piece,” she tells him, when he objects to her lack of follow-up questions. “They save the real stories for seniors.” Frank promptly lectures her about her lack of ambition. “A real journalist can turn any assignment into a story,” he says, making meaningful, supportive, educator-who-changes-your-life eye contact.

So Rachel dutifully spends the rest of the movie digging deeper into that story, and winds up uncovering a stunningly immense scandal in Frank’s district. The case, which screenwriter Mike Makowsky drew from actual events in his hometown in 2004, is enough to ruin multiple lives and careers.

Did Rachel actually run down the fraud case because a scoldy little pep talk turned her life around and gave her the inspiration and drive she lacked? Or because Frank’s mild condescension made her bristle? Or is it just a moment of narrative irony, an accidental connection meant to give the story more shape as Frank and Rachel end up on opposite sides of a struggle, while barely interacting? Bad Education doesn’t clear up the question, but it does invite viewers to think over all the implications of that moment, and how easily things could have gone differently for both Frank and Rachel. And as the scandal unfolds, Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky use this as just one reminder that Tassone earned everything that happens to him — even if he does seem like a broadly sympathetic character.

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan confront each other on an outdoor bench in front of their school in HBO’s Bad Education. Image: HBO

Like other movies about compulsive theft and self-delusion — 2003’s Owning Mahowny repeatedly comes to mind here, as does Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 masterpiece The Informant! Bad Education makes its supposed villains simultaneously approachable and unknowable by distancing them from the crimes they’re committing, and by downplaying any sense of the damage they caused. It’s clear early on in the film that Frank’s assistant Pam Gluckin (played with brisk, acerbic efficiency by Allison Janney) is not only hugely misusing school funds, she’s letting her family in on the bounty as well. But Frank successfully argues that it’s necessary to cover up her embezzlement, to protect his school’s reputation. And the school board backs him, to protect their institute’s sterling ranking and reputation.

That early setup puts the entire story on a house-of-cards footing. It’s clear that something much larger is going on, and that Frank knows what it is. It’s equally clear that he’s a master of excuses, evasions, and manipulation, and that as his challenges escalate, he’ll up his game in order to keep things quiet. That dynamic turns Bad Education into an enjoyably low-key exercise in tension, built around the very simple question of how long Frank can keep the plates spinning, and how loud a crash they’ll make when they all inevitably fall. Bad Education isn’t exactly a journalistic procedural in the vein of All the President’s Men or Spotlight — Finley and Makowsky spend comparatively little time on Rachel’s dogged digging into the truth. It’s more a portrait of Frank’s struggles as the noose tightens around his next.

That means the film leans heavily on Jackman’s placid charm to carry not just the story, but the tone. Frank is scripted as a glad-handing administrator who prides himself on knowing everything about his people — not just the names of the school’s parents and students, but who they’re related to, what hobbies interest them, and so forth. But he rarely comes off as an oily salesman. Jackman normally specializes in much bigger and broader performances, whether he’s playing seething anti-hero Wolverine in various X-Men movies, or belting out Broadway-style tunes onstage or in musicals like The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables. Here, he’s much more human-sized, a slick but seemingly sincere functionary who’s found his exact level, and has the success record to prove it. He’s a beloved, award-winning administrator who authentically seems to care about the people around him, and Jackman sells both the sincerity, and the sense of something lurking under it.

Hugh Jackman, in a gray suit and red tie sits and looks disappointedly into the camera, confronting someone offscreen. Behind him, six school board members stand in a semi-circle, looking similarly unhappy or upset, staring at the same offscreen person. Image: HBO

Bad Education’s most notable flaw is that it buys into the idea that it’s ultimately impossible to understand a man like Frank. It shows his different sides without fully reconciling them, or delving into the question of how a man could behave the way the real-life Frank did. It’s entertaining and thrilling to watch him try to evade the inevitable, while wondering what tactic he’ll try each new time he seems to be cornered. There’s a self-righteous pleasure in watching the district’s crimes being revealed, and watching Rachel learn and earn her confidence even as she’s becoming more disillusioned with the world.

But the film eventually comes to feel surface-level and shallow where both of them are concerned. It reduces her motives to a few pat scenes with Frank and her father, and lays out Frank’s motives in an unconvincing monologue about slippery slopes. It tells an entertaining story, but doesn’t illuminate it in an insightful or ambitious way.

Still, too many based-on-a-true-story films try for some pat and predictable moral, some sort of simplistic explanation that wraps up a human life into an easily understood bundle. Bad Education doesn’t attempt to fully explain Frank, so it doesn’t fail by doing it badly, either. The filmmakers settle for laying out the facts in a calculated set of but-wait-there’s-more reveals that keep escalating the stakes, and keeping the tension taut but not overblown. This isn’t a movie about car chases and explosions, it’s about the squirmy but satisfying feeling of watching justice done, and it’s a pleasure to watch the pieces fall into place.

In so many ways, starting with that attempt to shame Rachel, Frank engineers his own small and petty destruction. Bad Education doesn’t seem to fully understand why he did it, but it suggests that it’s enough to have Rachel’s access to the facts, and her confidence in making a clear and thrilling story out of all of it.

Bad Education is now streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.