Movies

Bad Education’s Young Hero Belongs in the Fictional Journalist Hall of Fame

Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) from the bust up, sitting in a high school cafeteria, in Bad Education.
Beneath this average-teen exterior, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) in Bad Education is a journalism role model. HBO

Reviews of Bad Education, the movie starring Hugh Jackman that recently premiered on HBO, have pointed out that the film is more than just the story of school administrators who fleeced a Long Island district for millions: It’s also an indictment of the American education system and its poisonous focus on prestige and test scores above all else. Don’t get me wrong—they’re correct. But I don’t want another important aspect of the movie to be forgotten while everyone is busy indicting education in America: Bad Education is also a great journalism movie.

No respectable journalism movie would be complete without a scrappy reporter, and in Bad Education, that role is filled by Rachel Bhargava, played charmingly and with an often-furrowed brow by Geraldine Viswanathan. The Roslyn High School student who eventually exposes the superintendent for embezzling is still a newbie at the school newspaper when we meet her. Because of her lack of experience, she’s originally assigned the seemingly boring job of writing about the district’s plan to build a “skywalk,” a fancy-sounding bridge that will connect the high school from end to end—and cost millions of dollars. Rachel’s reporting gets off to an inauspicious start when she tells superintendent Frank Tassone (Jackman), mid-interview, that the article is just a puff piece. Tassone doesn’t know he’s dooming himself when he encourages Rachel to think bigger, because a real journalist ought to be able to turn any assignment into a story. Rachel takes his advice.

When we next see Rachel, she’s interviewing Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), an administrator who works under Tassone, and who, unbeknownst to Rachel at the time, is his accomplice in secretly charging lavish personal expenses to the district. Rachel inquires about the contractors who were in the running to work on the skywalk, and Pam bristles at her nosiness. Watching this, it was hard not to think of the times sources have reacted the same way to my questions. Gluckin thinks she can get one over on Rachel and offers her a canned quote instead of answers, but Rachel stands her ground and asks again about those bids. It’s classic “follow the money” stuff. Rachel may be a rookie, but she displays a real knack for journalism. She’s persistent and doesn’t let a source intimidate her, but she does use the source’s underestimation of her to her advantage.

When Rachel brings her reporting to the editor of the newspaper, she is dismayed to find that he, too, doubts her new angle. On a desktop computer that’s open to page layout software that will look familiar to anyone who worked on a student paper in the ’00s, he rewrites her hard-hitting headline into something bland and inoffensive. It’s an educational glimpse behind the scenes: Editors aren’t always right, sometimes reporters have to defy the higher-ups to follow their instincts (Ahem. Hi editors!), and reporters are often not the ones writing the headlines.

As Rachel continues to be drawn more deeply into the story, we see her enlisting the help of her father to make calls, using baked goods to get on sources’ good sides, knocking on doors: This is good old-fashioned shoe leather, people. Despite threats from Tassone and pressure from that editor who doesn’t want to upset the powers that be, Rachel holds firm, and by the end of the movie her story lands on the Hilltop Beacon’s front page. Tassone and Gluckin are toast, and the movie’s final shot of Rachel has her sitting behind a desk in the newspaper room that bears the nameplate “editor-in-chief.”

We’ve seen slick portrayals of journalists before, but one thing that’s great about Viswanathan’s performance is the way she plays Rachel as a kind of slightly awkward every-teenager. She’s not a preternaturally skilled professional in the body of a 16-year-old but a kid who stumbles onto a good story and is willing to work hard to figure it out. Wearing an early-2000s wardrobe of mall-obtained overalls, hoodies, striped tops, and a green Jansport, she’s not aspirationally dressed like a character on on Gossip Girl. Instead, she’s the high school equivalent of Rachel McAdams’ dowdified, khakis-wearing reporter in Spotlight. I for one would love if this dorky Long Island teenager became a cult figure. Viswanathan’s friends are doing their part to make this a reality: On Twitter, she posted a photo of a Zoom call where a few of them surprised her by dressing up as Rachel.

I would be remiss not to mention that, though Bad Education is based on a true story, the real-life version of the school newspaper’s part in Tassone’s fall from grace isn’t quite as dramatic. The Hilltop Beacon was early to the story, but the students didn’t stumble upon it; instead they followed up on tips they’d received about an already-brewing scandal within the administration. This is opposed to the more proactive painstaking investigative reporting Rachel does in the movie. And the character of Rachel herself is, as screenwriter Mike Makowsky put it, “part composite, part invention,” though her story most closely resembles that of Rebekah Rombom, who was co-editor of the Beacon during the period in which the film is set. She told the Island Now, a publication based in Long Island, that she spoke to Viswanathan as well as Makowsky about her experience.

I don’t think either of those caveats should make Rachel any less inspirational, though. Either way, Tassone feared the bad press the story would bring, and whether from the school newspaper or professional outfits, bad press is exactly what he got. The system worked. Besides, scores of the most famous movie journalists were whole cloth inventions, as are many of our favorite fictional characters, and that doesn’t mean we can’t admire them.

Cheering on Rachel as she stands up to older students, school administrators, and the secret lovers and shell companies she encounters along the way is both fun and civic-minded. She’s an exemplar of how journalism, at its best, can act as a watchdog for the public’s interest, rooting out corruption and holding power to account. The movie also makes a strong argument for supporting local journalism, which happens to be in crisis right now. We would all be wise to look at the Hilltop Beacon as, well, a beacon. Personally, I know that next time I’m struggling with a story, I’m going to ask myself: “What would Rachel Bhargava do?”