In 2019, scams seemed to be in the news a lot. The disaster of Fyre Fest became the world’s obsession. The previous year, a German con artist named Anna Delvey unfairly earned a Robin Hood-esque reputation for her financial fraud that ruined many people’s lives. Mason jars were plentiful. Then, on March 12, it was revealed that U.S. Attorneys were filing charges on one of the largest criminal conspiracies of its kind. Dozens of influential and monied figures, including CEOs and actors, were found to have donated vast sums of money to one man in the name of fraudulently getting their kids into some of the top colleges in the country. The scandal felt like the most sublime case of schadenfreude we could have asked for. Finally, the rich were the ones getting screwed. The case was keenly followed over the years, and major names like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin ended up serving jail time. It was the sort of true crime case that people were desperate to know more about, an ideal example of a story where everyone involved fully sucked and we could laugh and rage at their misfortunes freely. Of course it was destined to become a Netflix documentary.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal comes to us courtesy of Chris Smith, the director of one of the Fyre Fest documentaries and a producer on Tiger King. Mercifully, this work isn’t as mired in sleaze as the latter. What’s on offer here is a pretty standard summary doc, a primer of the case at hand that hits the expected beats for a true-crime documentary. In terms of both content and aesthetic, this is very much cut from the cloth of the Netflix true-crime doc, which seems to have become a genre unto itself: think glossy cinematography, lots of drone shots of landscapes, vaguely sinister score, and re-enactments of key events. They’ve even brought in Matthew Modine to play Rick Singer, the man behind the scheme (it’s very generous casting, to put it gently). His dialogue is taken from the FBI wiretaps that incriminated dozens of individuals. These moments of Modine and others dramatically talking over the phone, usually with a glamorous backdrop, are interspersed with the traditional interview segments from law enforcement, journalists, and even one of the men who pleaded guilty to working with Singer (although he denies being actively involved in the crime.)
Regrettably, these re-enactments don’t include any of the names you’re probably hoping to see. A lot of time is dedicated to Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, but we’re not treated to moments of actors shuffling around mansions as they plan to figure out how to fake their daughter’s involvement in rowing. Curiously, Felicity Huffman is mostly absent from the documentary. So, those who are looking for full-on takedowns of these skeezy parents who willingly gamed the system, may be disappointed. Operation Varsity Blues is wholly the story of Rick Singer, or rather the machinations of Rick Singer. He remains mostly an enigma, with the briefest of backstories given to offer an extra layer to his crimes.
Really, hunting for a satisfying motive is futile, as is the search for something deeper than what we’re offered. “They did it because they had the money” is the frustrating truth at the heart of this scandal. Operation Varsity Blues often feels fluffy, but that almost feels like the point. Sometimes, there is no deeper motive or justification than money or status.
The documentary does offer some moments of depth. The college industrial complex is broken down, with emphasis put on how the faux prestige of these hallowed educational institutions helps to bolster the entire capitalistic system around college applications. Spend decades pushing the image that your school is the best of the best and that no other degree from a ‘lesser’ college will help you in life. Ensure that admissions are seldom higher than 15%. Offer college and SAT prep tutoring for thousands of dollars. Play up twisted notions of legacy. Leave a back door open for admission by other means. Singer called what he did a ‘side door,’ a way to get in that wasn’t active bribery in the traditional sense. Pay a hefty $50 million ‘donation’ and maybe you too can get your mediocre brat into Harvard (Yes, the example the documentary uses for this moment is Jared Kushner.)
Largely, Operation Varsity Blues is pretty kind to the kids involved. None of them are named or centered as bad examples, and most of their faces are blurred. Well, except for Olivia Jade. She’s really the only student who is named and shamed here, her smarmy vlogs bragging about how much she hates school contrasted with crying videos of other kids dealing with their rejections from schools like USC, the one she attended under false pretenses. Is she an easy target? Sure. It’s almost too on the nose that a vapid influencer was part of this scam, so why not include her?
She is the exception, though. Smith is more interested in the machinations of Singer’s scheme: fake educational difficulties to get kids more time to take the SATs; photoshop faces onto professional athletes’ bodies to keep up the illusion that a five-foot five-inch-tall teen is a basketball prodigy; bribe coaches to accept clearly phony applications. One scheme involved sending unsuspecting kids to take the SAT with a ‘proctor’ who was actually some guy Singer paid to take the test for them once they left. As Singer, Modine practically goads these parents into believing their kids are too stupid to live, let alone get into college. This adds a new shade to the story. Granted, it’s not as though the documentary is trying to exonerate the families. Rather, it’s a reminder that, for a certain subset of the population, their problems are merely annoyances to be paid off.
This straightforward documentary may feel slight to some, but it succeeds in breaking down a complex process into something digestible. As with the case itself, Operation Varsity Blues doesn’t offer much in the way of a satisfying conclusion. Sure, for once in their lives, the rich faced punishment for breaking the rules, but was it worth it? Will three months in jail and a five-figure fine really make an impact? As the documentary notes, these consequences are nothing to CEOs who make that kind of cash sitting on the toilet. The side door is closed but the back door remains for the next generation of Jared Kushners.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal premieres on Netflix on March 17.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.