When I was a kid, I was walking home from high school one day when I noticed some unusual activity at the train station. There were a lot more vehicles parked nearby, lights were being hoisted aloft, and crew members were scurrying around as the station was being converted into a movie set. I stopped, watched, and asked someone what they were shooting. The answer was “Up The Sandbox,” a Barbra Streisand project that was nowhere near as good as the movies she did that preceded (“What’s Up Doc?”) and succeeded (“The Way We Were”) this flop. At the time, of course, no one knew it wouldn’t do much box office.
I found the whole thing fascinating enough to hang around for awhile in the hopes of seeing them shoot a scene. After all, how often does Hollywood make a major motion picture in your hometown? The only other instance I knew of at the time was Neil Simon’s “The Out Of Towners,” which began with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis driving out of their nice, comfortable, suburban neighborhood for a weekend in Manhattan that started badly and went downhill from there. When I saw it on the big screen, I got a little excited when I recognized the subdivision (Country Estates) that opening scene took place in.
Now, nearly four decades later, I got to see the area I grew up in represented on screen again, in the movie “Bad Education,” which debuted on HBO this weekend (and will rerun many times over the next month). It’s based on the true story of Frank Tassone, the beloved superintendent of schools in Roslyn, New York (played to smarmy perfection by Hugh Jackman) and Pam Gluckin, the assistant superintendent of schools (Allison Janney, adopting a perfect Long Island accent). Under their leadership, the stature of Roslyn’s school district had grown substantially — although I don’t remember it being all that bad in the 12 years I attended its various institutions — causing the board of education (chaired by Bob Spicer, played by Ray Romano) and the parents of its thriving students to hail the duo and give them essentially free reign. Unfortunately for the taxpayers, Tassone and Gluckin abused their positions, embezzling millions of dollars in the process.
All of this was uncovered in 2002, when intrepid student journalist Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovered irregularities in the district’s budgets and contracts. Once her story was printed in the high school newspaper, the Hilltop Beacon, an investigation ensued and the walls came crumbling down.
“Bad Education” was written by Mike Makowsky, who knows a bit about the Roslyn school district because he was in one of its elementary schools when the scandal took place. He wisely included scenes at the town’s iconic clock tower and downtown area, but those were the only ones with a genuine local feel — I knew immediately (but was not surprised) that the high school in the movie was not the one I attended. Nonetheless, Makowsky’s dialogue was sharp and characters well-defined. Credit also goes to director Cory Finley, whose directorial debut, “Thoroughbreds,” I absolutely hated a couple of years ago. Fortunately, he redeemed himself with “Bad Education,” particularly the way he pulled off a Sidney Lumet-like claustrophobia in later scenes when the walls seemed to be closing in around Tassone.
Frankly, I’m a sucker for most things Allison Janney does (except the sitcom “Mom”) and continue to be impressed by the choices Jackman makes. Once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, I hope to be able to see him in the Broadway revival of “The Music Man” that was supposed to debut this fall. In the meantime, “Bad Education” provides a nice opportunity to see both of them at the top of their games in a story I never even knew about (after all, it happened more than a quarter-century after my last days in those buildings).
I give it an 8.5 out of 10.