Friday, May 8, 2020

Bad Education: Movie Review

A character-rich true story.

Bad Education is a movie where almost every choice they made was perfect. Let’s start with the casting. Hugh Jackman stars as Frank, a school superintendent, a former English teacher promoted into the world of wealth with higher pay, more responsibilities but less direct impact on the students and adults of tomorrow’s world. He’s an aging man, who tries hard to maintain his youthful looks and works hard to be relevant and popular.   2019

Directed by: Cory Finley

Screenplay by: Mike Makowsky
Based on the New York Magazine article "The Bad Superintendent" by Robert Kolker

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan and Ray Romano

Given the basic one sentence plot description that this is about the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history, it’s not hard to guess where this is going. And yet, I was fascinated by the character of Frank. I hung on to every word he said, believed many of his lies, and slowly saw my sympathies shifting as his world started collapsing. It wasn’t just what he did or how he did it, but why he did it. The writers knew that’s where the heart of the story was and built the uncovering of the scandal around who Frank is as a person.

Frank is very image conscious and not just in an insidious way to get everyone to like him but genuinely wants to get to know everyone in the school district and be seen as helpful and caring. He also legitimately cares about the students succeeding; there’s an earnestness to him that makes him different from your typical politician but this is also what helps cover up the lies. And yes, I called him both earnest and a liar in the same sentence – he’s both, never at the same time of course, but one side eventually wins out.

I have two favourite story aspects to this movie. About a third into the movie there’s an advancement to Frank’s character which is later to be revealed as both a partial lie and a major driving force in the hidden aspects of his life. Jackman’s scene partner in this story line is Rafael Casal, an actor who appears to be relatively new to the industry, and who I am now hoping will break out in a big way.

One of Casal’s big scenes highlights how good the cinematography is in this movie. And more significantly how effective subtle cinematography can be in character-driven movies that don’t have big budgets and sweeping landscapes and epic scenery. This cinematography is all about camera placement and how get to know a character better. Without spoiling anything, all I can say (and trying not to sound crazy as I gush about how much I love this scene), is that there’s a mirror, Frank and with only Casal’s body-language and the angle of the camera, the audience gets both a deeper reveal of Frank’s character and his attempts to conceal (that part gets more significant later in the movie, but I digress).

My second favourite story detail is the student journalist Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan). She’s arguably the only main character who can be considered a hero and only a hero (pretty much every other character has villain sides to their story). She’s also a quiet and reluctant hero. There are characters who try to help her, others who actively don’t help her (and of course there are characters who are on both sides) for both nefarious reasons but also legitimately good reasons given their extent of knowledge. It’s very fitting that Rachel is the one to root for given that students are the victims of this scandal and see no direct benefit from justice served.

Ultimately Bad Education has intensely rich characters. A full spectrum of people making good choices, bad choices, but all choices that fit who they are. I was first drawn to this as a true story, detailing a real embezzlement scandal. But I was blown away by how the story was crafted, that there is so much more to these characters. Thank you HBO for giving me the first great movie of 2020.

I will leave you with final questions. The type of questions that based on true story movies can ask but can never really be answered. What was the real reason Frank was promoted to superintendent? My personal thought changes depending on how cynical I’m feeling in the moment. And if he was never promoted and remained a teacher would he currently be happy and living a crime-free life? Yes, I truly believe he would be.