“A little bit of justice being served in a sea of injustice” is how cultural critic and interviewee Naomi Fry describes the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal and why it seized the nation’s attention for a few pre-pandemic weeks. The gap between the myth of American meritocracy and the reality of the have-everythings cheating or gaming the system to hoard even more resources has seldom been more glaring than in this case. But you probably knew all that, along with the fallout from the scandal, including Felicity Huffman’s 14-day prison sentence (of which she served 11), Lori Loughlin’s two-month stay and her fashion-designer husband Mossimo Giannulli’s current five-month stint.
So what else is there to know about this conspiracy to buy rich kids the “certainty of admission at a bargain-basement price”? Plenty, it turns out. Director Chris Smith (who previously helmed the Netflix documentary Fyre, about the disastrous music festival) was well aware that the case had been exhaustively covered by the media — and that its ringleader, Rick Singer, had largely evaded scrutiny. Naturally, then, Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues — titled after the FBI’s code name for its investigation of Singer, his associates and his clients — focuses on the man who received $25 million in seven years to usher affluent teens through the “side doors” at Stanford, UCLA, USC and Yale.
A headline-grabbing case is seen through a fresh lens.
In Smith’s retelling, Singer is a figure not unlike Fyre Festival architect Billy McFarland: a serial scammer peddling “promises he couldn’t keep.” A former Sacramento high-school coach known for his volatility, Singer remade himself as a college admissions consultant and quickly earned a reputation as a slimeball who would, for instance, change his clients’ race on applications from white to Black or Latino. But unlike McFarland, Singer actually delivered on many of his commitments, as long as parents had $75,000 to spend on a desired SAT or ACT score (via a test proctor, Mark Riddell, who would fly across the country and fill in the correct answers on behalf of clients) or could contribute to the $20,000 that former USC athletic director Donna Heinel received every month to advocate for the competitive merits of, say, a 5’5 male basketball player. The documentary is chock full of such details — and in a case like this, where it’s less about the shock of corruption than the confirmation of it, the details are everything.
Just as notable as its focus is Operation Varsity Blues’ relatively unique format, which alternates between the usual talking heads and extensive reenactments with dialogue lifted from FBI-recorded transcripts. Matthew Modine “stars” as Singer, cutting a lanky but sporty figure with a “monk’s” haircut and a closet full of tracksuits. Shot in August 2020, the documentary looks very much like the mid-COVID production that it is: spare sets, one-person scenes, phone call after phone call. And yet, because so much of the film is recreations of wiretapped conversations, the effects of the pandemic feel minimal.
Quarantine has exacerbated the pre-existing inequities in our educational system, with the ultra-wealthy hiring private instructors to supplement or replace school for their children, while many poor students struggle even to log on to Zoom with spotty or nonexistent internet service at home. Perhaps that’s why the populist schadenfreude that the admissions scandal incited feels just as relevant now. In laying out exactly how Singer’s scheme worked and why it’s wrong, Operation Varsity Blues offers new insights into the ways he exploited elite colleges’ preferential treatment of wealthy white students. And in a world where public humiliation is sometimes the only real consequence that one-percenter malefactors face in our skewed justice system, there’s some righteousness in the documentary’s naming the names and revealing the faces, even if none agreed to participate in the film.
Smith’s attempts to mine new points of view from the scandal don’t always work. Late in the film, he argues that the real culprits behind players like Singer are the elite colleges and their prestige-pumping practices. But that risks letting his clients off the hook at a time when, at least among a slice of the chatterati, there have been increasing calls for privileged parents to re-examine how their self-centered choices render the educational system more unjust for less advantaged students. And writer Jon Karmen’s efforts at humanizing Singer through one of the most hackneyed cinematic tropes around — a strained romance — yield little except irritation.
But Karmen (who also edited) ably capitalizes on our knowledge of Singer’s downfall to suspenseful effect, with the fraudster making little mistakes here and there, any one of which could eventually alert the FBI. The script’s skillful tension makes it easy to forgive Operation Varsity Blues its occasionally clunky missteps. At least it tells a tale as old as time — of the insatiable rapacity of those who already have more than anyone else — with novel relish.
Production company: Library Films
Cast: Matthew Modine, Josh Stamberg, Wallace Langham, David Starzy
Director: Chris Smith
Producers: Chris Smith, Jon Karmen, Youree Henley
Director of photography: Britton Foster
Production designer: Scott Dougan
Costume designer: Natasha Newman-Thomas
Composers: Leopold Ross, Nick Chuba, Atticus Ross
Editor: Jon Karmen
Casting: Chelsea Ellis Bloch, Marisol Roncali,
Rated R, 100 minutes