A dutiful crime documentary that poses few problems. “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal,“Don’t waste your breath on the moral ups and downs about what a certain group of wealthy parents did to get their kids off to exclusive colleges. It also happily spends precious little screen time on celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin, whose faces and names were in almost all of the news about this story when it was published in early 2019. Given the tabloid that characterized most of this coverage, which director Chris Smith tut is almost radical: Mostly hold on to the crime itself, the accused ringleader behind it, Rick Singerand the systemic corruption that he exploited.
READ MORE: The 20 Best Documentaries of 2020
In an increasingly common gimmick that is used pretty seamlessly here, Smith builds the documentary around recreational activities. Given the depth of seemingly distressing recorded phone calls between Singer and his clients, this offers the film an abundance of material to dramatize. Smith nests this dramatization with contextual commentary from a variety of professionals, from test prep experts, former admissions officers, and former Singer customers. More than one of them describe the service he marketed – with a series of deliberate and expensive counterfeiting and bribery to ensure admission to virtually any high school senior whose parents could raise a few hundred thousand dollars – as shabby. However, the idea that law enforcement could interfere with such a leisurely relationship between wealthy individuals seems unfathomable until it did.
READ MORE: The best Documentaries Of the decade [2010s]
Singer, a basketball coach who reinvented himself as an independent college admissions advisor after his release in the 1990s, marketed himself to anxious parents to provide their kids with the brass ring for elite college admission. In many ways, Singer, a workaholic and serial fable with a hunter’s flair for the vulnerabilities of his prey, is shown here as the master of a game that very few people know how to play. Casting Matthew Modine Makes kind of sense, considering how his lean presence and habitual tension with clenched jaws coincide with Singer’s monomania for machine-like exercise and deal-hunting. But as effective as the characterization is, Modine is no charmer. This leaves the film with a credibility gap as it immerses one customer at a time into its risky venture.
One of the most striking aspects of Operation Varsity Blues is how easily Singer’s clients were able to overcome the amoral aspects of his proposal. None of the recorded conversations that were held here between Singer and the one percent owner who sought his services wavered between right and wrong. As one expert sardonically notes, Singer’s ultra-wealthy clients wrestled their kids’ college admission just as they did everything else: “Put money on the problem.” A couple wonders if anything is going to hit them back, but for the most part, it doesn’t seem to worry the Davos set as played in this film to illegally gain an unfair advantage on their offspring. If you have any concerns, Singer’s targeted justification (“the playing field is not fair”) and an anodyne phrase (to describe his scam as a “side door” to college entry rather than the “back door” of major donations or “front door”) (Merit) helps them get past it. “What a world we live in,” wonders one client after Singer describes how he made a completely wrong record of high school athleticism around the Polishing the application process as if he were simply a passive observer of the deception. Singer’s clientele includes a man who invites him to Paris for a birthday party for the “I rented Versailles,” so civic moral concerns are unlikely to be a factor.
“Operation Varsity Blues” is all the more exciting the further it is from Singer’s alleged conspiracy. Smith understands how the match between the colleges’ hunger for donations and the demand from upper class parents for upper class college berths helps keep even the bleakest of lies going unnoticed. Nobody sees what they don’t want to see. There is some interest in hearing how easy it was for Singer to falsify test results (let parents find a doctor who claims their child has a learning disorder and needs extra time, then pay off the examiner to fill in the answers). But the film encounters richer material as soon as it comes under the pressure that provided Singer with so many buyers for his services.
In some places, Operation Varsity Blues revolves around the conspiracy itself and the FBI investigation that ultimately led dozen to speak out about what causes wealthy parents to bend the rules for their offspring. Disgruntled experts expose the insane inequalities of the world. Donate a few million dollars to pave the way for an academically below average child – the example is used by a lackluster student Jared Kushner Skating to Harvard after his father donated $ 2.5 million while only asking affirmative color students about the merits of their admission – is never recognized, but is generally known to be true. We see social media clips of students exploding with joy or collapsing in despair after discovering their application status. “Forget USC!” An expert screams in desperation at this status mania, which the film claims has nothing to do with academic excellence. But while Operation Varsity Blues delves a little into the deeper systemic rot of the licensing process, this is ultimately the story of a personality. Just not particularly interesting.
Smith’s focus on Singer comes as no surprise. His better documentaries like “collapse” and “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,It was about a great many things (the meaning of life, the end of America), but it was about the magnetic people at their core. While “Fyre“Indulged in a certain kind of finger pointing social media glee and clicked as a movie due to the incredibly blind self-awareness of the festival organizer and serial cheater Billy McFarland. Singer is a far more distant and unrecognizable type of character. Smith tries to investigate the human side of crime through his interviews with John Vandemoer, the Stanford sailing coach who is almost the only accomplice on the list. But Vandemoer looks less like a schemer trying to top up his salary by giving fake seafarers a place at a top university than like a coach pressured to raise money who was all too happy than a friendly salesman like Singer offered to make “donations” to the university school.
The real drama in the admissions scandal isn’t the ringleaders or the celebrities and hedge fund magnates who hired him, but what this Hunger Games scenario means for all children whose parents cannot afford his services. [B]