Review: Entertaining 'Operation Varsity Blues' documents massive college admission scandal
Courtesy of Netflix
It was a scandal heard around the world after the FBI unleashed charges against an elite class of wealthy individuals caught cheating/bribing their children into prestigious, IVY league schools. Some names you wouldn’t recognize: finance CEO’s and Wall Street brokers, and others - “Full House” star Lori Laughlin and Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman - you would. With the help of Rick Singer, the owner of a standardized test prep company who used his connections to sneak kids through “the side door,” these parents forked over hefty sums of cash, which guaranteed their children would get accepted to Harvard, Yale or Princeton without any academic merit. Usually, you’d make a large donation and hope for the best, but Singer’s methods were seemingly fool proof.
Chris Smith’s sly and enraging new documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” adds context to the biggest case of academic fraud the United States has ever seen. Fitting nicely into the catalog of Netflix investigative docs (they’re becoming a cinematic university unto themselves), “Operation Varsity Blues” is pieced with both interviews and live-action dramatizations thanks to public transcripts of Singer’s private conversations captured via government wiretap.
In the dramatization segments, Matthew Modine - sporting a full bowl haircut - plays Singer, a Sacramento-based college admission consultant whose main con was funneling bribes from needy, assertive parents to crooked athletic coaches who would in return offer walk-on spots to their children despite no previous qualifications. It’s a simple ruse that went unchecked for almost 20 years: Singer would tell his “clients” to have their children pose for a couple pictures (maybe they’re trying out for football or soccer) and send the profile to his cronies who would admit the student with their unilateral authority. “But my kid doesn’t play football” one parent asks: “It doesn’t matter” Singer would say, “because they’ll never step foot on the playing field.” Singer even managed an effective method of cheating on the ACT that’s jaw-dropping.
As a piece of filmmaking, “Operation Varsity Blues” is an entertaining look at how the wealthy elitists sabotage in their favor (and still get away with it). In fact, when the con was first revealed, I’m not sure many were surprised. But the way Smith supercuts actual footage of hardworking students devastated to learn their top school is rejecting them hits a strong emotional chord. “Operation Varsity Blues” also points the fingers at social media and the insurmountable pressure teeangers face to get into a good college. When their favorites - UCLA for example - only have a 12% acceptance rate, it often leaves them scrambling for answers. It’s a fratuerating testament to how pompous the system is and though the blend of live-action and non-fictional elements don’t always mesh, “Operation Varsity Blues” ingeniously pulls back the curtain to tell a cautionary tale worth hearing.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal debuts on Netflix Wednesday, March 17th.