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2 documentaries based on real events: Radium Girls & Bad Education

Bad Education

Radium Girls.

The true story of t the shameful failure to protect workers in a radium factory from its harmful effects isn't escape entertainment. And in Radium Girls, the movie now streaming at Netflix, Dean Pilcher and Ginny Moholder have certainly not soft-pedaled the horrendous suffering caused by deliberately hidden truths and harmful guidelines for how to do the job. If it echoes recent false information about the dangers of the virus and the importance of wearing masks, that is of course what makes Radium Girls painful to watch, and intensely relevant a hundred years after that workplace tragedy unfolded. The filmmakers have expanded the drama at a New Jersey factory as well as a Midwestern factory, into a broader look at our labor history, especially as it affected women.

The scenario focuses on characters who are composites of actual people. However, the chief characters are two fictionalized, teen-aged sisters from an impoverished family that relies on their wages as "dial painters" in the Orange, New Jersey American Radio Factory — Bessie (Joey King) and Jo (Abby Quinn). Paltry as the wages are they're better than what poor girls in other factories earned in those days. Bessie and Jo followed in the footsteps of their older sister who died three years earlier.

It's pretty obvious from the get-go that the practice of licking the paintbrushes to produce a finer point should have been discouraged rather than encouraged. Except for Bessie, the girls at American Radio see no danger in this practice since this is 1925, a period when Marie Curie' s discovery of radium was hailed not just a scientific miracle but also heavily promoted as a wonderful healing and beauty product. Thus, many of the girls also painted their nails with polish "enhanced" with radium. (Think of the current push to promote vaping as a safe alternative to cigarettes.)

The sisters' story includes a romance for Bessie and her dream of being an actress alongside increasingly worrisome health issues for Jo. The film's agitprop sensibility merges all aspects of the plot by making Bessie's boyfriend Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) a communist who radicalizes Bessie to more actively protect her beloved sister. She insists on getting help — and eventually justice — for her beloved sister. This begins with her keeping after Mr. Roeder, the autocratic factory owner (John Bedford Lloyd), to send the company doctor ((Neal Huff) to diagnose and treat Jo.

The doctor's shamefully false diagnosis and the way the company deals with Jo's deteriorating condition results in a David-and-Goliath courtroom battle.

Since Radium Girls is based on actual events, don't count on a happy ending in which Jo gets well, the shut-down of the New Jersey and Illinois "follow the money" factories, plus personal happiness and an acting career for Bessie. But there are some small and potent triumphs nevertheless.

Bessie is supported by Walt and Wiley Stephens (Cara Seymour), local worker advocacy organization's representative. And the trial features highly dramatic supportive testimonies by Dr. Katherine Drinker (Veanne Cox) the Harvsrd professor who discovered the toxic elements of Radium and Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), the factory scientist.

The filmmakers do push too hard on the "wokeness" button by adding another friend for Bessie: Etta, (Susan Heyward), an African-American photographer who adds the destroyed enclave of successful black Oklahoma citizens to the mix of abusive behavior that has darkened our history. The frequent black-and-white street scene interludes add a nice cinematic touch but aren't always an organic fit for the storyline.

Ultimately, the flaws are overshadowed by the moving performances of Joey King and Abby Quinn as well as the excellent ensemble members, a number of whom I've had the pleasure of seeing on stage.

Bad Education
From HBO we have another docu-drama, in this case a 20-year-old financial scandal with plenty of timely elements. While a superintendent's stealing more than $10 million from a school district is no laughing matter but grand larceny, Bad Education isn't as painfully dark as Raidium Girls. In fact, directed with snap, crackle and style by Cory Finley, scripted by Mike Makowsky, a graduate of the bilked Roslyn schol district, it's an entertaining caper. It helps that Hugh Jackman plays the thieving superintendent Frand Education isn't as painfully dark as Radium Girls. In fact, as k Tassone and manages to make him more charismatic than than an evil villain. His second-in-command and also thievery, Pam Gluckin (Alison Janney) isn't a really hateful baddie either.

As Frank Tassone wasn't a truly nasty villain, neither were the kids attending the Roslyn school district during his ten-year reign badly educated. Quite the opposite. Fank, may have been a little too slick with his carefully gelled hair, snappy attire and a big smile on his face, but he's an always impressive and capable presence, the kind who really knows and is interested in the students. He's also always available to the parents and teschers. As the movie begins Frank has actually made Roslyn one of Long Island's top school districts — a major consideration for home buyers.

The dramatic tension comes from discovering the Frank behind that ever present smile, the details about his personal status as a widower — and, of course, where the money he and Pam managed to skim from the shool's resources have been going.

I doubt I'm being a apoiler when I tell you that it's one of the good things he does — encouraging Rachel Bhargavav (Geraldine Viswanathan), reporter on the school newspaper, to keep pursuing an article her editor thought unsuitable — trips him up. Watching Frsnk snd Pam's double lives unfold makes for fascinating streaming. It's not only one a gripping character study of Jackman's Frank, but also how easily ordinary "good" people are duped by their desire for the good life for themselves and their children.

The visual details are spot on. While the entire cast is fine Bad Educstion is Jackman's show, a master class in getting deep inside a complicated character.

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Radium GIrls
Written by Ginny Mohler
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler

Principal Players: Joey King - Bessie, Abby Quinn - Josephine, Cara Seymour - Wiley Stephens, Scott Shepherd - Mr. Leech, Susan Heyward - Ettak, Neal Huff - Dr. Flint, Collin Kelly-Sordelet - Walt, John Bedford Lloyd - Arthur Roeder, Joe Grifasi Nonno, Brandon Gill - Thomas, Olivia Macklin - Paula, Colby Minifie - Dorisk, Greg Hildreth - Henry Berry, Veanne Cox - Dr. Katherine Drinker, Tom Galantich - Radium Lawyer, Steven Hauck - Dr. Marland, Cafrol Cadby - Mrs. Butkiss, Gina Piersanti - Hazel, Juliana Sass - Agnes

Music by Lillie Rebecca McDonough
Cinematography Mathieu Plainfosse
Edited by Giacomo Ambrosini and Ben Garch
Available for streaming at Netflix
Running time 102 minutes
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Bad Education
Written by Mike Makowsky
Directed by Cory Finley
Principal Players: Hugh Jackman - Frank Tassone, Ray Romano - Big Bob Spicer, Welker White - Mary Ann, Allison Janney - Pam Gluckin, Annalei
gh Ashford - Jenny Aquila, Geraldine Viswanathan - Rachel Bhargava Avsilable for streaming at HBO
Running Time: 1 hour and 43 minutes
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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