Bad Education review: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney carry HBO crime drama

Allison Janney and Hugh Jackman in Bad Education. (Photo Credit; Courtesy of HBO.)
Allison Janney and Hugh Jackman in Bad Education. (Photo Credit; Courtesy of HBO.) /

HBO’s Bad Education rests squarely on two larger-than-life performances by Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in this true crime tale of school corruption.

Watching the HBO film Bad Education is like watching an episode of American Greed: you can’t believe it happened, but you also can’t help but get sucked in.

The movie details the downfall of Roslyn, New York superintendent Frank Tassone, who was found to have stolen more than two million dollars from his school district. Pamela Gluckin, his assistant superintendent, also embezzled more than four million.

Though the duo ran up a tab of over six million dollars, the film’s epitaph notes that the Roslyn school district lost some $11 million in total—making Bad Education the story of the largest theft from a school system in American history.

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While those numbers sound frightening, there’s no movie if the viewers don’t get suckered in along with the characters. That’s where the two leads shine. Hugh Jackman is an incredible showman, and that works perfectly in playing Frank Tassone, because the audience has to see how he charmed students, parents, staff members and even the public. We have to understand why he was so beloved even though we know what he did.

Jackman’s version of Tassone is a charismatic, engaging superintendent who smiles at everybody, makes a concerted effort to know everyone’s names and interests—one scene has Janney’s Pam Gluckin quizzing him about parents—and encourages the student reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) who will ultimately bring about his downfall by saying “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.”

But while Bad Education gives the sense that he does care about Roslyn, it also makes clear that to Tassone, a good deal of this interest is self-interest. It’s a chess game, appearing to care about a local book club so that the women there will be on side when he seeks approval for a very pricey construction project. It’s gambling junkets in Las Vegas and, eventually, throwing Gluckin under the bus when her misdeeds are found out first.

Frank Tassone may have done genuine good in some respects, but he never stopped trying to do good for himself. And Jackman balances both sides well, coming off like a white knight and then a panicked con man in turn.

Janney has played a number of straight shooters, from C.J. Cregg in The West Wing to her current award-winning role as Bonnie Plunkett in Mom, and that creates a fun contrast to Jackman. In her hands, Pam Gluckin doesn’t mince words either, and is a shrewd woman who is only afraid when the walls start closing in on her.

Watching the two of them chew the scenery is the biggest reason to watch Bad Education. We’ve seen stories about corrupt school officials before, and stories about financial crimes every day, but these two talented actors create characters that the audience can’t look away from. It’s the movie equivalent of a train wreck, and because they’re so good, you understand how the people they’re portraying got away with being so bad.

The most disturbing fact doesn’t even surface until the closing seconds of the film: an “oversight” in state pension law means that New York is still paying Frank Tassone almost $175,000 a year.

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Bad Education is now available through HBO on Demand and if you have an HBO subscription through Amazon Video or Hulu.