Greetings again from the darkness. Trust in our national institutions may be at an all-time low, but it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of events over the years to make us wary enough to demand attention and oversight. This story of the 2002 Nassau County Schools scandal is a prime example. This is director Corey Finley’s follow up to his clever and twisted THOROUGHBREDS (2018), and the script is from writer Mike Makowski, who was a student in the district when the scandal hit.
Hugh Jackman plays Dr. Frank Tassone, the District Superintendent of Schools, while Oscar winner Allison Janney (I, TONYA) is Pam Gluckin, the Assistant Superintendent. Both are excellent, but Mr. Jackman delivers what might be his best ever performance. His Tassone is uber-charming, and clearly wants the best for the schools and students. We do notice some oddities about him. He seems to be overly concerned about his physical attractiveness – perfect business suits, facelifts, not a hair out of place, and big smiles to show the world he has it all under control. In contrast, if Ms. Janney’s Pam had a mustache, she would certainly twirl it as the story’s most obvious villain.
The film opens by informing us that the district has been evaluated as doing excellent in terms of student test scores, student admissions to prestigious schools, raising property values in the area, and with financial success that leads to a new construction project – one that appears to be more of an ego project than substantive for education. Ray Romano plays the President of the School Board, and we get glimpses of life at the school, and the challenges faced by the administrators. As with many things, if all is well, few questions are asked.
However, stuff hits the fan when a reporter for the school paper starts doing some basic research. Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan, BLOCKERS) is writing a “fluff” piece on a new high dollar capital improvement project at the school, when she stumbles on irregularities in billing. It turns out Ms. Gluckin has been embezzling for years. When the discrepancies first come to light, the conversations with the school board and administrators is downright fascinating. The crime is obvious, but by going public, who does it help and who does it hurt? These people don’t want the kids to lose opportunities. They don’t want their property values to drop. And they don’t want the bad publicity that comes with being unaware fraud had been ongoing under their watch.
Once Ms. Gluckin’s scheme has been exposed, Jackman really kicks it into gear for Tassone. Any additional details would spoil the fun, but it becomes clear that he’s a master manipulator. Corrupt people have a way of convincing themselves their actions are justified, given the good work they do. You know the drill – underappreciated and underpaid. Solid support work comes from David Bhargava as Rachel’s father, who is also going through his own professional crisis. Alex Wolff is the editor of the school paper, and he faces his own moral dilemma in a scene where he knows the right thing to do will actually cause harm to his college opportunity. Finally, Rafael Casal stars as Kyle, a bartender/dancer and former student of Tassone, as they are reunited in Las Vegas.
Director Finley and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (THROUGHBREDS, A GIRL WHO WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) shoot in harsh light, never allowing the truth to hide behind soft filters. These are complex people with real lives and real families and real friends, all doing good things for the students. Watching a compromise of morals or a twisting of ethics is always a bit uncomfortable, but the film shows just how easy we can overlook the obvious. The film features brisk pacing with some dark humor in moments that least deserve humor. The trailer is a bit misleading, as the comedy is quite dark in nature. A low-key approach to filmmaking provides none of the over-the-top dramatic flair we expect. Instead it’s social commentary and a psychological study of pathological liars and manipulators … in positions that bring public trust.