In my previous reviews of movies based on real-life events, I always pose the same question: why make a movie, and not a documentary? In the past two months, I’ve reviewed two films produced by Netflix that were unable to answer this question. I was very excited to see what HBO, a network that doesn’t pump out new content nearly as often as a conglomerate like Netflix, could produce. I saw a brief trailer beforehand for what appeared to be a smartly written, well-directed movie about a scandal I’d never heard of before. Combine that with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney starring, and I was sold. I enjoy a good political thriller, and this one even promised a little pinch of black comedy thrown into the mix, which, for this style of storytelling, can be the secret ingredient for success. And after watching the movie during its premiere at 8pm EST last night, I’m happy to report that, for once, I’ve found a good answer to my question.
Bad Education is another excellent example of a filmmaker elevating the events of a true story into an exciting cinematic experience, and certainly one that audience members will be unfamiliar with. The story details the cataclysmic failure of the Roslyn High School administration in catching its superintendent, Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), and many of his colleagues, stealing millions of taxpayer dollars from their school district. This action sparks a chain of events that, among many things, ultimately destroys the school’s reputation. Writer and co-producer Mike Makowsky was inspired to tell this story because he was actually there, as a student, during the scandal, which doesn’t sound that surprising, considering the depth of the script. The dialogue and performances from everyone (but especially Jackman) are the obvious standouts and are worth recommending the film for alone.
One of the failures that films of this type often succumb to is bad direction. It’s easy to try and ride on the thrill of the reality of a story, under the assumption that it will do all the heavy lifting when trying to captivate an audience. But director Cory Finely, in his first feature film, uses interesting camera movements that track each character with watchful eyes. It manages to shift perspectives seamlessly, immersing its audience deeper into the mindsets of these greedy people without them even realizing it. There’s a subtle art to his visual decisions that might go unnoticed by the conscious minds of most viewers, but they’ll walk away from the film thinking it was great anyways, because of how good the actors are, and how crazy the story got.
The film also avoids being a cut-and-dry biopic by deceiving its audience into siding with certain characters, only to realize as the story progresses that they too have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Dr. Tassone has his entire career thrown off track by one of his own students, one Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) who starts to dig deeper into the school’s finances after being tasked by the school paper to write a fluff piece about a new addition to the building. In a lesser movie, this character would have less to say and act more like a catalyst, but Finley takes the time to even empathize with her motivations, and her debate over the ethics of, essentially, destroying her place of education. With an under two-hour runtime, I’m shocked so much was packed into the story without it feeling rushed, or worse, jampacked with irreverent nonsense.
Bad Education is exceptional; from its writing and direction, to the performances from an ensemble cast, it elevates a story that might otherwise simply raise an eyebrow in the papers for a week into a spiraling adventure of deceit and greed. It has moments of levity and meaning that shine through the terrible actions of these very real people, with a relevant final message everyone can take away from.