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HBO’s ‘Bad Education’ Is an Unexpected Evisceration of Our Broken School System

HBO's big TIFF acquisition is a slick movie about outlandish swindlers, but anyone arguing that's the full story is scamming you.

Bad Education

“Bad Education”

HBO Films

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for HBO’s “Bad Education.”]

The climax of “Bad Education” is both entirely expected and utterly bizarre.

After spending nearly 90 minutes carefully divulging secret after treacherous secret, steadily building to a con artist’s just comeuppance, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) walks into Roslyn High School and comes face to face with his worst nightmare. Students who once high-fived their beloved superintendent are left agape in judgmental astonishment; co-workers who would’ve followed him into fire now demand his resignation; parents boo him off the stage during an explanatory assembly. As Frank walks back to his office, glancing into the conference room where he once received congratulatory fruit baskets and posed for pictures with appreciative colleagues, he only sees FBI agents combing through records. And those records expose more than $2 million Frank embezzled from the Long Island school.

This is it. All movie fans recognize this as the moment when the con artist finally gets busted. And as Frank reaches for his office door, you just know there’s a herd of cops waiting on the other side to slap him in cuffs. Except when Frank opens his eyes, there’s no lurking sheriff; there’s just Mrs. Carol Schweitzer, poised with another complaint about her young son Chad’s education. She’s already met with Frank once, last fall, when he graciously offered to let the struggling student retake a test and put Chad on the placement track his mother demanded, despite what his teachers advised. So what does Frank do, when a parent’s relatively minor and totally outrageous complaint arrives at the very moment his life is falling apart? He stops to teach the kid how to pronounce the word “accelerate.”

Why? Because “Bad Education” isn’t just telling a juicy true story about a salacious scandal; it’s making a point about our broken American school system, the abuse teachers are forced to take, and the madness it can drive them toward.

Frank Tassone, as seen in “Bad Education,” is two men at once. The Frank we first meet is fully dedicated to his job. He spends late nights at the office memorizing names of various teachers, administrators, and students. He shares his many gifts with the staff and always puts his best face forward in public. When there’s a work trip to Las Vegas, his colleagues skip the monotonous conference lectures in favor of hitting the craps tables — but not Frank. He pays close attention, takes notes, and even stays after to bend the speaker’s ear.

Bad Education

“Bad Education”

HBO/screenshot

His goal in life is the same as his goal at work — help others succeed — and our first hint toward Frank’s duplicitous nature comes when the supposed widower runs into an old student, Kyle Contreras (played by Rafael Casal), and makes a move. Up until that point, Frank presents as straight, telling curious women he’s a still-wounded widower. So is Frank stuck in the closet, just coming to terms with his sexuality, or is there more going on we don’t know about?

Obviously, it’s the latter, but Frank and Kyle’s relationship isn’t just there to hint at Frank’s secretive nature; it’s another example of his complete dedication to his students. Frank only suggests they go back to his room when Kyle, a once-promising writer back when Frank taught him in English, admits his life hasn’t worked out the way he hoped. That means his life didn’t work out like Frank hoped either; that his efforts weren’t enough. In a flash, you can see Frank’s intentions shift, as though he’s only attracted to Kyle because he thinks he can still help him succeed, all these years later.

Would they have still hooked up if Kyle had become a famous science-fiction author? Maybe not. What Frank wants more than anything is to help his students, and even when the financial scandal starts to surface, “Bad Education” marks a clear dichotomy between Frank’s motivations and those of his primary accomplice. Pam Gluckin, the assistant superintendent played with pitch-perfect smarm, apprehension, and umbrage by Allison Janney, represents greed, while Frank represents corruption. Both overlap with one another at times, but she’s the one throwing lavish parties at her seaside mansion; she’s the one paying for her cousin’s Christmas presents on the school credit card; she’s the one who, when it’s all summed up, embezzled twice as much as Frank.

Frank, though, is no martyr, and the movie never paints him as such. Writer Mike Makowsky, who was a student at Roslyn when the scandal broke, picks and chooses what we know about Frank in order to show how he got away with the con for so long, sure, but also because he’s making a point through the character, not a biopic about him. “Bad Education” isn’t “The Frank Tassone Story”; it’s a sagacious study of what caused this unprecedented event, and once Frank and Pam’s radical misconduct is exposed, that’s when we start to see their damning similarities.

Bad Education HBO Movie Hugh Jackman Allison Janney

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in “Bad Education”

JoJo Whilden / HBO

While Pam lets loose her indignation to more spectacular extremes — trying to beat up her oblivious son (played by the young master of 20-something dummies, Jimmy Tatro) for screwing up their remodel and sitting in contemptuous silence as her family tears open their Christmas presents — Frank’s expenditures are largely tied to his work. He buys expensive suits to look good for school events; he eats costly meals to impress benefactors and maintain his healthy sheen; he even lives in a pricey New York apartment to avoid stirring controversy over his lifestyle. The film makes clear that Frank grossly overindulges while illustrating why he feels entitled to such perks — the $20,000 trip to Europe was for work, so who cares if he flew first-class and brought a “friend”? Doesn’t he deserve a few perks for a life spent in service to everyone else?

“Bad Education” offers a resounding “no,” while inviting audiences to consider what exactly those perks should be. If we want our teachers and school administrators to get the results that Frank does — the No. 4 school district in the country! more admissions to Ivy League colleges than ever! — then the effort we demand of them has to mirror the recognition offered. To start the movie, Frank is shown entering a crowded auditorium to a rapturous standing ovation. At the end, he dreams of being on that stage again. But applause clearly isn’t enough; not for what he did or what he dreamed of doing; not for a lifetime of dealing with people like Mrs. Schweitzer, who stands in front of a man in crisis and complains that her son’s teacher made his test harder out of “spite.” She’s not only taking Frank for granted, but everyone who’s carved time out of their own lives to help a student.

“My problem? My problem is you,” Frank says. “It’s the people who trot their poor children out like race horses at Belmont; who derive some perverse joy out of treating us like low-level service reps. Do you remember the teachers who sat with you, who held you by the hand, who taught you to add and subtract, or showed you Gatsby and Salinger, for the first time — Mockingbird even? Do their names escape you? Are their faces a blur? […] You might forget, but we don’t. We never forget. Ever.”

As millions of Americans are homeschooling their kids, it took just 71 minutes of teaching for super-producer Shonda Rhimes to argue that educators deserve $1 billion a year — “or a week.” It’s a position almost everyone can get behind, yet it’s gone widely ignored on a national scale. It’s also the same frustrating feeling Frank finally reveals when he confronts Mrs. Schweitzer. Somewhere between the fleeting applause and egregious embezzlement lies proper acknowledgement for our inexhaustible educators, and “Bad Education” serves as a searing reminder that we still haven’t found it.

After all, Frank’s only a con artist because he spent a lifetime being overlooked.

“Bad Education” is streaming now on HBO.

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