Chris Smith is the director.
Matthew Modine, Sarah Chaney, and Josh Stamberg star in this film.
Docu-drama is a type of documentary film.
Netflix Is a Streaming Service.
It was only a matter of time before it happened. Netflix has a talent for spotting classic American controversies that leave the rest of the globe scratching their heads, thinking, “You guys did what?” Really?
The normal Netflix documentary follows a formula: an investigative gaze meets Jerry Springer’s tone that serves as both tabloid fodder and cultural inquiry. Most non-Americans (including myself) are dimly aware of the headlines, but seeing the parts put together in the shape of a coherent narrative adds to the novelty.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal differs from other juicy sensationalist sagas such as Tiger King, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, and Wild Wild Country in this regard.
For starters, the con – which involves a self-made college counselor who works with wealthy customers to get their privileged children into Ivy League institutions via a ‘back door’ – isn’t particularly American.
To be honest, it’s not really that surprising. I recall wondering to myself, “How did the FBI get involved in this?” By that logic, half of India would be imprisoned. Our middle name is “setting.” The Third World’s way of life is a surprising scandal in the First World.
I did, however, envy the fact that the industrialists and Hollywood personalities involved in this great fraud had no influence over the media or the government. They were unable to purchase the law. They couldn’t use intimidation to get out of trouble. Think about it. (I’m sure Felicity Huffman had something better in mind for her Netflix Original debut.)
Another distinction is the event’s widespread worldwide coverage and, as a result, its freshness in public memory. There isn’t much further the film can do in terms of reporting or revelation. As a result, the path it takes is far from ideal for documentary purists.
Director Chris Smith chooses to re-enact the path of key character Rick Singer using FBI wiretap transcripts. Rick Singer is played by Matthew Modine, and numerous other actors play the high-profile parents that call Singer for aid on strange phone calls.
The recreations are mixed with a clever mix of talking heads, including cultural pundits, journalists, attorneys, cops, and students, as well as brief archival videos. In essence, the film transforms into a hybrid docudrama, failing to do credit to neither fact nor fantasy.
In a strictly documentary sense, I guess it’s difficult to show the scam’s anatomy. It’s all pretty complicated. In exchange for a guaranteed athletic quota seat at a top college, the parents give to Rick’s organization.
The twist, of course, is that these kids aren’t truly athletes — Rick and his network of lower-level contacts and sports directors from various universities conspire to create a false profile for them, which includes staged (water-polo, sailing, and basketball) photoshoots at times.
Rick is the go-to man for influential figures wanting to provide their children with a five-star education, thanks to a standardized testing racket expertly coordinated across states and a standardized testing racket meticulously choreographed across states.
Given that the individuals are living parallel lives – putting on a show to sell and buy “products” – the dramatized manner (with artists standing in for actual people) may make sense on a curiously allegorical level.
Or maybe I’m just grasping at straws for some sort of meaning. Aside from a lack of access, I don’t understand why a documentary should show rather than infer, or tell rather than reveal. Unless you’re watching crappy cop shows.
Going Beyond the Headlines
Operation Varsity Blues, on the other hand, does create a sense of perspective. It has a familiar ring to it for those who remember our own Vyapam fraud from 2013. Rick Singer, the architect behind America’s largest-ever education scandal, is the subject of our attention.
But, as the documentary concludes, he is merely Frankenstein’s monster. That isn’t to imply that Singer and the parents who are willing to break the rules are the ones who suffer. However, it is the wider picture that allows them to do so.
The singer is a product of a capitalist society that turns parenting into disease and ambition into a measurable asset. A montage of real students filming their emotions to live admissions results opens the film. People who are ‘normal’.
Stanford, Yale, Harvard, USC, and Brown are all sending letters. Some are ecstatic, while others are inconsolable. This raises the stakes immediately, insinuating the existence of an ultra-competitive culture that brainwashes kids into equating their future with the prestige of a name.
One can’t help but wonder if these kids understand what they’re mourning and celebrating as they shiver with delight. Are they truly old enough to understand the distinction between education and further education?
The present state of the scandal’s repercussions
The intricacies of Singer’s scheme are revealed early on in the documentary to be a clear play on a more traditional infrastructure. The hillside-door entry’ is similar to the present ‘back-door entry’ at institutions, where the wealthy contribute up to $40 million for their children to be considered for a seat.
Singer’s entrepreneurial genius and his underpaid network of trainers and cohorts are the stuff of a classic underdog story, with the lowest rungs rebelling against the rich executives who take all the donations without any accountability.
The frightening element is that one can almost understand their motivations for devising an illegal side-door technique to combat the “legal” backdoor activity. In a way, if they succeed, they’ll be working-class heroes preying on the wealthy and ignorant in order to outsmart the system.
If everything goes wrong, which it does, it’s difficult not to see Singer and his team as paupers in a game of land-conquering Kings and Queens. Of course, this is a dangerous ideology to promote.
The fact that the true villains remain hidden in their iv(or)y-league fortresses is even more perilous. After all, ghosts have access to the entire planet.
Operation Varsity Blues Netflix: Is Operation Varsity Blues on Netflix Yet?
The film, which stars Matthew Modine as Rick Singer and includes reenactments as well as interviews with genuine people engaged in the controversy, stars Matthew Modine as Rick Singer.