As Whitney Houston was fond of singing, the children are our future — and so forth. It’s a lesson Americans have adopted with a zeal that can border on the criminal. After all, it was only last year that a school bribery scandal brought down both Felicity Huffman and halted production on one of Hallmark’s most popular series. But Operation Varsity Blues is not America's first school scandal — not be a long shot. And now, the true story of a pair of New York school administrators on Long Island stealing millions from Roslyn High has become one of HBO’s best films, with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janey stealing scene after scene in the excellent “Bad Education.”
The true story of a pair of New York school administrators on Long Island stealing millions from Roslyn High has become one of HBO’s best films.
The film was adapted by Roslyn alumni Mike Makowsky, who witnessed the scandal break firsthand as a student. It begins a few months before the story first came to light in 2002. That’s when Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone was confronted with evidence of wrongdoing by Pam Gluckin, who had been embezzling from the school district as head of Tassone’s budget office. Tassone recommended leniency, Gluckin confessed and the scandal faded.
At the time, the school board oversaw a high school ranked among the top ten in the country. It was believed by most that Tassone’s cool-headed educator smarts got Roslyn where it was and kept it there, and everyone wanted to believe Gluckin’s claims that her crimes were motivated by desperation and an ill husband.
Of course, they weren’t. As the saying goes, fish rots from the head. A grifter that brazen isn’t typically operating on her own. And Tassone, despite his charming good looks, tragic backstory of a wife lost too early and ability to convince every parent that his or her child was above average, was enabling a culture of corruption far bigger than one woman.
By the time the full account came out in 2004, the school board and Roslyn High's parents discovered their perpetually grieving widower had spent his 12 years as superintendent using school funds to support a triple life involving two different men, a fabulous Manhattan apartment and yet another home in Las Vegas. On top of trips to London and high roller suites, he’d stashed away hundreds of thousands of dollars in accounts under the names of his sisters.
For those unfamiliar with the story going in, the film is a remarkable thriller, though one that tips its hand relatively early. Within the first half hour, Tassone is partying in Vegas with his exotic dancer lover on the school dime, while Gluckin is brazenly telling her relations to charge Sony PlayStations to the school credit card. The only real question is who will be the one to put the pieces together, as the school spends millions on “construction repairs” — even as the ceiling tiles above the students’ head rot.
This being a story about blind parents and the people taking them for a ride, it is a literal child who leads them to the truth. Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan, the breakout star of 2018’s “Blockers”) is a sophomore who is part of the journalism club, resigned to writing fluff and nonsense for the school paper. (The character is a fictionalized version of the real-life school journalist who uncovered the scandal.) Her clear boredom when interviewing Tassone inspires him to encourage her; any story can be hard-hitting if you dig deep enough, he says.
This being a story about blind parents and the people taking them for a ride, it is a literal child who leads them to the truth.
One would think, with so much to hide, Tassone wouldn’t encourage a 16-year-old girl to start asking questions about budgets and so forth. But it speaks to how utterly compartmentalized he is, and how utterly confident he is that he won’t get caught. Gluckin, on the other hand, is at least slightly more attuned to the danger. Hoping to turn Rachel off the scent, she dares the child to root out the budget paperwork in the deep dank basement. (Fascinating how lazy grifters in this world assume everyone is so easily defeated by a little bit of smell.)
Jackman and Janney are absolutely riveting. This is the kind of film that could easily have become predictable. But both paint a three-dimensional portrait that peels back the layers on these grifters, as they go from underpaid educators working thankless hours to corrupt goodfellas. What starts as the occasional pizza becomes the right suit for the interview which helps them climb the ladder, until it’s a self-perpetuating cycle that the rich privileged parents around them are blind to. In Jackman’s hands, Tassone is a villain who could not possibly see himself as such. After all, he’s getting these kids into Harvard. Isn’t that worth an extra million or so?
”Truth is stranger than fiction” twists and turns are all the rage right now, with docuseries like “Tiger King” lighting up Netflix. But “Bad Education,” which is far more intelligently laid out and researched, is poised to be the next big hit. And given the grift happening around us, the story couldn’t be more timely. The only question is if viewers are willing to see the hard truths about privilege and self-interest at the center of this caper.