Movies & TV

Bad Education Review: Hugh Jackman Shines in the Performance of a Lifetime

The new HBO film has some lessons to impart on greed and ambition.
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Hugh Jackman spent 17 years playing superhero Wolverine that it’s sometimes hard to think of him as anybody else when he’s onscreen. In the new HBO movie Bad Education, however, the Australian actor disappears so completely in his role as a suburban school administrator and educator that you forget about the clawed Marvel superhero for a second. 

Bad Education is the big screen retelling of a scandal that rocked the Roslyn school district of New York in the early 2000s. School administrator Frank Tassone was a popular figure in the eyes of students and parents alike. He insisted on one-on-one meetings with every new student to get to know them personally, hobnobbed with their parents at a book club, and helped raise the school district’s profile to become a competitive education facility, which in turn increased property values in the area.

But underneath the veneer of competence and charisma lurked a tale of extravagance and corruption. In 2004, Tassone was arrested for first degree larceny. He was accused of siphoning off $11.2 million from the school to fund his own ostentatious lifestyle—a Mercedes-Benz, an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, fancy suits, and trips to Vegas, among other luxuries.

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To make matters worse, his assistant administrator Pam Gluckman, who is played in the movie by Academy Award-winner Allison Janney, had also been arrested for a similar offense—stealing $4.3 million from the school’s coffers. She used the money to pay for renovations to her beach house, buy Jet Skis, and the like.

It’s this dichotomy—of a school doing so well that its kids were getting accepted into prestigious colleges and officials so corrupt they had no scruples stealing from said school—that the film explores thoughtfully. The linear narrative storytelling device works in its favor—audiences are introduced to this seemingly normal academic community in Long Island and are gradually exposed to the misdeeds perpetrated by those tasked to lead. The shock value creeps up on you.

Writer Mike Makowsky is especially suited to tell this tale given that he was a student at the actual school at the time the events in the film take place. His storytelling reflects the feelings of incredulity and betrayal the community felt and emphasizes the role the student newspaper played in exposing the administrators’ criminal behavior.

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Janney and a host of supporting players, including Ray Romano, offer up stellar performances, each one painting a picture of suburban normalcy until their lives are upended by the scandal.

But clearly this is a starring vehicle for Jackman, who imbues his character initially with confidence and gravitas and, eventually, with vulnerability and wounded pride. We already know he’s a great actor, even outside his iconic role as Logan, but in Bad Education, he takes it to another level by giving us a layered performance of a man whose seemingly sincere willingness to help the kids and the school is matched only by his vanity, arrogance and feelings of entitlement.

And as if the double life isn’t enough, we learn that Tassone is also hiding yet another secret—that of closeted homosexual. How Jackman keeps his character grounded and believable despite all these different balls he’s juggling in the air is his greatest triumph. It’s not a stretch to say that Bad Education could be a defining performance of his career.

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School is often the environment where we first develop independent and critical thinking, and to have this openness destroyed by the actions of adults that are supposed to be leading by example can be disheartening, if not downright traumatic. But Makowsky chooses to make it a teachable moment; Bad Education is a cautionary tale about the consequences of greed and ambition. It’s a lesson we all need to learn, whether we’re still in school or already several years removed from formal education and out in the "real world."

Bad Education debuts in the Philippines on Sunday, 26 April, at 8am exclusively on HBO GO

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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