Review: Operation Varsity Blues Gives the College Admission Scandal the Documentary Treatment

From the great documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (who has given us everything from American Movie to Netflix’s FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened) comes Operation Varsity Blues, a complex but cleanly organized dissection of the 2019 college admissions scandal that takes its name from the actual FBI sting operation that netted 50 privileged families who collectively paid millions to get their children into prestigious educational institutions.

Operation Varsity Blues

Image credit Adam Rose/Netflix ©2021

Smith begins the film with a montage of reaction videos of kids opening the web pages that tell them if they got into their school of choice; it’s an instantly emotional and wonderful reminder of what is at stake for so many young people. But later in the film, where viewers may begin to ask themselves “Who is this scam really hurting, besides the rich families having to shell over hundreds of thousands of dollars?”, we see another montage, this time of kids who didn’t get into their first, second or even third choices, sometimes because a less worthy kid with rich parents bought their way in.

Using a combination of new interviews with experts on the admissions process and this specific case as well as news coverage of the event, Operation Varsity Blues is a fascinating portrait of one Rick Singer (played in the film’s many re-creations by Matthew Modine), a former coach who figured out a way to use lower-profile college athletics programs (water polo, crew, soccer, etc.) as a “side door” into guaranteeing entry into the college of their choice for a price—the more elite the school, the higher the price tag. The film makes it clear that an elite school does not necessarily mean the education is better than a smaller, lesser-known institution, but branding matters when parents need something to brag about. There were separate scams arranged by Singer that involved having standardized test scores altered, using certain loopholes about test taking to his and his clients’ full advantage.

In a system already stacked against lower- and middle-income families, the facts put forth in this film will likely infuriate anyone who watches it, and while Singer’s methods certainly weren’t legal, they were allowed to go unchecked for years because universities simply didn’t care as much about certain sports as they do about football and basketball. The filmmakers point out that the dialogue in the re-creations is all taken directly from wiretapped conversations between Singer and his clients, both before and after he became a collaborating informant and ratted out everyone to avoid prison (so far).

But perhaps the kicker to the entire sting operation, the thing that might make audiences the angriest, is that no one caught being a part of this scam served more than a few months of prison time, if any. The greatest harm was to their reputation, and to the kids who likely got kicked out of school as well, including the children of many CEOs, financial bigwigs, and actors like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin (both of whose transcripts are strangely not included in the film). While the film never asks us to feels sorry for anyone who got caught in the scandal, there are one or two less guilty parties who got swept up by the sting who probably didn’t deserve to. But Operation Varsity Blues never lets us forget that in a system already rigged against so many, this was just one more way deserving kids got screwed because they weren’t drowning in money from birth.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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