If the films on this year’s broadly impressive Toronto line-up have had anything in common, it’s that they’re much better than they needed to be. Bad Education, the Thoroughbreds follow-up from young director Cory Finley, centred around one of America’s most costly school frauds, is the best example of that yet. Long Island public schools might not be conventional territory for talented sophomore directors, but Bad Education just so happens to be one of the best films of the year.
A more conventional choice for a Mike Nichols picture, or perhaps a directorial choice for Aaron Sorkin, Finley was an avant-garde choice to take on this Mike Makowsky script, and that’s apparent quite quickly. A career-best performance from Hugh Jackman, who dazzles as the protagonist and antagonist Dr Frank Tassone, alongside a highly coherent script and memorable performances from a stellar supporting cast mean Bad Education is one of the defining American films of 2019 and a new dark horse for major awards success.
Makowsky himself was around the suburban New York City school operation of the era he’s writing about (even meeting Tassone as a young student) and that also shows. He approaches the story with immense authenticity, a feature that Finley evidently pounces on in how he tells the remarkable story of America’s fraudster bureaucrats of the early 2000s. Alison Janney is striking as the business manager and partner in crime Pam Gluckin, once again consuming the role to the extent that you’d think it was written with her in mind.
Finley’s greatest success with Bad Education, aside from bringing a genuinely unorthodox visual style to a script that could be fumbled into something mediocre – think Jackman’s The Front Runner from last year at Tiff – is his fixation with telling a story of a time in history. The soundtrack is perfectly chosen, the setting in social history (without giving too much away) poignant and relevant without being overdone, and a culture of trust in authority led by indifference a well-transmitted one. One supporting character says of the crimes committed by those in power, “When things are going well, you don’t ask questions.” That’s a concept we might think somewhat foreign today, but one that – thanks to shrewd writing in particular – seemingly makes perfect sense in the context of a not-so-long-ago-but-now-scarcely-recognisable world.
Meanwhile, Jackman is unnervingly good as Tassone, a shoo-in for a career-best performance from the actor. He brings deception and sociopathy so compellingly to a character that seems to change in morality every 5 minutes – until we realise he’s been the same person all along. The notion of a stifled bureaucrat sick and tired of public service, now demanding a reward for years of underappreciated loyalty, is common in recent cinema but perhaps still under-utilised considering the world we live in today. As the polite ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal declares in Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989), “What good is the law if it doesn’t do me justice?”