HBO’s Narrow Dramatization of a Real School Scandal on Long Island in “Bad Education”

Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

HBO’s “Bad Education,” coming out on Saturday, is a dramatization of a real-life school-district scandal that occurred on Long Island. I took note of the scandal when it first unfolded, in the early two-thousands, because I graduated from the institution at its center, Roslyn High School, three decades earlier (though my family connection to the town was already long over). What’s fascinating and significant about the film, which is written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Cory Finley, is that it takes a serious look not at Roslyn’s idiosyncrasies (“Bad Education” doesn’t dwell on local curiosities) but at the traits that Roslyn shares with more or less every prosperous suburb in America. It’s a story of aspirations and dreams, of the striving for wealth and the perpetuation of its privileges, and of the systems by which that process of heightened stratification, of upward mobility for those already on top, is sustained. It’s also a movie that exemplifies the unchallenged movie convention of distilling a complex story into information snippets, each with its own specific emotional orientation, that fit together so precisely and so tightly that, rather than exploring its implications, it seals them out.

The title is ironic, inasmuch as the movie’s starting point is the very idea of a good education. It begins with a virtual rally, a public meeting where Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), the head of the school board, trumpets to a joyful audience the news that Roslyn’s schools have been ranked fourth in a national evaluation. He boasts about rising standardized-test scores and the large number of students admitted to Ivy League schools, and he attributes the success to the district’s superintendent, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), who, after grooming and primping himself in the men’s room, heads down the corridor and enters the auditorium to cheers. In other words, from the start, the movie’s subject isn’t education as such but its markers of success—ones that Tassone is driven to optimize.

More here.