NETFLIX Review: 'Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,' privilege with and for a price
In 2019, an investigation that was dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues" uncovered a scandalous scheme involving super-wealthy parents who were caught buying access for their children to attend prestigious colleges and universities across America.
To the majority of the public, the "faces" of this scandal were actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin - who were perhaps the two most famous individuals involved - but there were allegedly over 700 families caught up in it (though over 50 formally charged). All of whom had two things in common: They had committed a felony, and they had dealt directly with Rick Singer, a "coach" and consultant to the super-rich, who was the man who cooked the whole thing up.
The new Netflix documentary "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal" is a hybrid film, in that it uses actors to recreate many of the scenes and uses this method to supply much of the film's visuals. All of the spoken words that the actors say however, are directly taken from wire-tapping transcripts or other intelligence that was gathered during the investigation. Another recent Netflix doc, last year's "The Social Dilemma," used similar tactics to illustrate its points, so this trend in documentary filmmaking seems to be growing in popularity.
In the film, Matthew Modine makes a very compelling Rick Singer, a guy who somehow ended up in a position sandwiched in-between wealthy parents and corrupt college/university admissions officials. Prior to Singer's plot, there were two primary ways to get into college. There is the "front door," where a kid actually earns his way into school based on their own merits (imagine that!), and there is the "back door," where massive donations can be made to the school to try to win influence or a second-look at the child's application.
With the "back door" offering no guarantees, Singer created what he called a "side door" option, where he would basically falsify a kid's application (involving a complex test-taking scam to boost ACT and SAT scores), and get them into the school via a sport like sailing or water polo. A parent would pay Singer handsome sums of money (sometimes upwards of $500,000) for this "service," which all but guaranteed their child would get into the college of their choice, and which was far less expensive than the "back door" option. Almost all - if not all - of the time, the child had no idea what was going on on their behalf.
The film spends a great deal of its time explaining precisely how Singer's scheme worked, and surprisingly Felicity Huffman is hardly even mentioned. Lori Loughlin and her YouTube-sensation star daughter, Olivia Jade, are given a bit more time, but are not at all the focal point of the story. Singer is the star here, and those not familiar with the proceedings will be shocked at where he is now that the scandal is out in the open and several - including Loughlin and Huffman - received brief jail-time as a consequence for their involvement.
"Operation Varsity Blues" is infuriating, because it pulls the curtains back on privilege, and exposes the realities and the shortcomings of the systems we have in place. While most of us on the bottom were always told that hard work pays off, little did we know that those on the top were doing most of the paying off. While middle-class families look to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" as the saying goes, the uber-wealthy have no need for boots, or straps, as they have already gained their place toward the top of the proverbial ladder.
Equally infuriating to the viewer is that it's implied that there is probably many more schemes similar in nature to this one that exist, but we just don't know about them. The movie doesn't offer any answers or fixes, missing out on an opportunity to put this scandal in more of a broader context. It also doesn't look aggressively enough at the other major culprit in all of this: The colleges and universities themselves, who claim they had no knowledge of any wrongdoing, and who even continue to hold the line that there is no such "back door" way to influence their admissions. When is someone going to take these major institutions to task? Using this story as a starting point, the documentary had a great chance to take aim, but chooses not to.
This was Singer's empire that was toppled, but how many other corrupt systems are in place in our society? "Operation Varsity Blues" exists as a fantastic example of how rigged the game is, and how ignorant it may be to attempt to play by the rules when some of the opponents will stop at nothing to win.
Genre: Documentary, Crime
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes.
Starring (in recreation scenes): Matthew Modine, Ken Weiler, Sarah Chaney, Wallace Langham, Leroy Edwards III, Gus Lynch.
Directed by Chris Smith ("Fyre," "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond," "Home Movie," "American Movie").
"Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal" is on Netflix on Wednesday, March 17th, 2021.
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