In this crazy world we called America, we’re taught that the successful earned their keep by hard work, grit and determination. Surely there’s nothing deeper to look into about it, right? No necks that have been stepped on? No underhanded tactics at play? You’re not supposed to suggest that. How dare you suggest that? Are you trying to undermine my hard work just because I’ve gotten farther in life than you have? How dare you. Now shut up and let me drink my activated charcoal smoothie.
More often than not, the road to success is paved with more dirty laundry than a frat house bedroom floor. Not only does it ruin it for those actually doing honest work, but it creates such an air of distrust that may never go away. Especially when we come to distrust those in charge of protecting our country’s most valued asset: our children.
That’s what made what happened in the Roslyn Union Free School district in Long Island, New York so shocking. In 2004, the residents of this school zone were appalled to discover over 11 million dollars had been stolen from the school’s budget and used by several members of the faculty for their own personal spending. Several individuals were arrested, tried and convicted, severing the line of trust between the parents and the teachers.
And then HBO made a movie about it, and it’s pretty damn good.
Bad Education is the dramatic retelling of said event, painted with that serious blue sheen sometimes found in crime dramas. You aren’t entirely sure what you’re getting into at first. From the beginning we’re show the monotonous day-to-day activities of a small, unassuming high school. At the helm of this ship is Frank Tassone, the superintendent of the school district, played by Hugh Jackman. He obviously loves his job, and is well liked by students and parents alike, with many of his successes directly enhancing the district’s booming economy. He’s a friendly, outgoing, understanding, and well-meaning servant of the students. Also he flies to Vegas and sleeps with a former student of his.
But you know, he’s a good guy. At least, that’s how he’s perceived. He seems to run a tight ship, but there’s a hefty financial conspiracy happening right underneath his nose. His assistant superintendent, Pam Gluckin (portrayed by Allison Janey) has been secretly using school board funds for things such as her home’s renovation and her niece’s Christmas shopping. When her unaware son uses her “district expenses” card a bit too much, word begins to spread of her misuse of local government funds. Pam is only the tip of the iceberg, however, as a hardboiled, high school newspaper detective named Rachel begins to uncover just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
What started off as a straightforward, semi-predictable film soon throws you for a loop as the plot evolves into a full-on crime drama. The thin-as-glass air of perfection surrounding the school slowly begins to crack as certain characters begin to make dramatic shifts in personality until you’re not really sure who to be rooting for. Even then you can’t help but find a small smidgen of sympathy for the people doing these detestable things. This of course is due in part to the grade-A performances on display here. Next to Logan and The Prestige, this is perhaps my favorite Jackman performance, and easily one of the best performances of the year. The mix of pride and frailty that Jackman’s Frank carries makes him by far the most interesting and layered character in the film. Under his calm demeanor and his drive to do good is a monster molded by ambition, a wrath he tries to contain but lets slip in order to get his point across. He’s not an over the top caricature, but distinctly human, capable of doing both good and bad, willing to both help and harm. It takes talented restraint and convincing writing to pull this kind of character off. Luckily, this film has both.
The film’s razor sharp script continues to enthrall and surprise by the time the credits roll, somehow completing the Herculean task of making something as simple as a school financial scandal as enthralling as some of the best high-octane crime dramas. Director Cory Finley does a tremendous job at giving purpose and weight to these seemingly mundane aspects of the education machines that we tend not to really consider. School newspaper, a usually banal and non-impactful class (speaking from experience), is suddenly the tool dismantling the corruption found deep in the veins of the system. Numbers, finances and statistics that would put an audience to sleep in less capable hands are now the clues to truly understanding what is happening and how much of it is happening. The script takes its time, patiently overturning one stone at a time, allowing the audience to play detective along with the student “detective” trying to make sense of it all. While the film never really nails a big “A-ha!” moment and remains fairly restrained throughout, I found myself enamored by just how many steps Finley remained ahead of me as I tried to tell him what was happening before he could show me.
While framed as a crime drama, this film is truly a character study that may just make you question your own high school’s spending. These very real characters are given perhaps too much control and power than whats good for them, and it makes you wonder just how much malice actually drives their decisions. Frank isn’t a villain, nor is he a hero. He’s done genuine good for his students and their parents and is treated like a celebrity everywhere he goes. His associates and himself have been rewarded for their efforts, but is it enough? Is it what they deserve? Do they deserve more? Self-worth and identity politics rage a war in the minds of many of these characters, coloring them some of the grayest gray I’ve seen in a film like this.
With its twist and turns and juggling of several themes and tones, I was reminded of the 2019 film Parasite constantly. Parasite was by far my favorite movie of 2019 (and ever), so it’s no surprise that, at the time of this writing, Bad Education is my favorite film of 2020 (though it’s technically a 2019 film but it wasn’t released in the US until 2020). Coming to me in the heart of the COVID pandemic as the big studios began to pull and cancel releases left and right, Bad Education stepped up and dominate my thoughts, which is something I really can’t say for almost any of the films released this year. Isolated, it’s not entirely the masterpiece I wish it could be, but in the crazy realm of 2020, its the champion.
In the words of Joan Jet from an alternate dimension:
“You should give a damn about Bad Education!”
Fade to Black
Inspired by the activated charcoal smoothies that Frank drinks, the Fade to Black is a variation on the rum sour that utilizes sweet blackberries and a spoonful of activated charcoal to give it a dark, almost sinister look. It tastes delicious and won’t dye your teeth black, so it’s a win-win!
Before you make this cocktail yourself I would do a bit of research on activated charcoal to see if it’s safe for you to use. While relatively harmless, it has been know to negate the effects of some medication, and should be used with caution. Luckily the drink tastes just as great without it, so if you need to, feel free to leave out the activated charcoal all together.
- 5 blackberries
- 2oz spiced rum
- 3/4oz simple syrup
- 3/4oz lemon juice
- 1 egg white
- 1 barspoon activated charcoal
- Bitters for garnish
- Muddle blackberries in a shaker.
- Add rum, simple syrup, lemon juice, egg white and activated charcoal.
- Dry shake ingredients for 20 seconds.
- Add ice and shake to chill drink.
- Strain into chilled coup glass or rocks glass over ice.
- Garnish with a few drops of Angostura bitters.