Netflix doc Operation Varsity Blues puts a vivid spin on the college admissions scandal: Review
Remember Operation Varsity Blues? Through the weary eyes and shredded psyches of 2021, there's something almost quaint about looking back on a story that riveted us just two eternal years ago. (LOL that lady from Full House and tabloids and actual universities not shuttered by a plague.)
But if there's anyone who can spin the flotsam of the zeitgeist into Netflix gold, it's filmmaker Chris Smith, the man who brought you both Tiger King (as executive producer) and arguably the better of two Fyre Festival documentaries. In Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (streaming March 17) he forsakes standard documentary for a more ambitious format somewhere between Lifetime true crime and The Big Short, supplementing his real-life talking heads with dramatic reenactments populated by a scattering of familiar Hollywood faces (albeit ones on a much humbler scale than say, Margot Robbie in a bathtub).
Accordingly, the scam's mastermind Rick Singer is played by Matthew Modine, his hair chopped into a blunt silver Caesar and long limbs swimming in the coach-off-duty athleisure of the odd, monkish man who built an empire on slipping the children of the wealthy through the side doors of the most desirable schools. For that privilege he often charged upwards of six figures — and made it a common practice, infamously, to pose his prospective coeds as rowers, lacrosse players, or volleyball aces; phantom athletes conjured by shameless lies and Photoshop.
Using actual transcripts from wire taps and FBI documents, Smith unspools a forensic reconstruction of events, from Springer's obscure beginnings as a Sacramento college counselor to his rise as a jet-setting fixer for the American elite and their underperforming offspring. That execution can feel stilted in the reenactments, but it's bluntly effective in getting across the casual venality of his clients, who rarely pause to consider the moral implications of their choices, though they frequently remember to fret about being caught.
Most illuminating are the various journalists, attorneys, witnesses, and admissions counselors who testify to the case. (Only one man indicted in the conspiracy, a sailing coach from Stanford, participates on screen, but his testimony is devastating.) In clear, concise soundbites, they outline exactly how the scheme built its blueprint, and how wildly — some $25 million paid out in bribes between 2011 and 2018 — it succeeded. They're also excellent at explaining why we care: the whole ugly slurry of class, presumption, and privilege in a supposed meritocracy.
But there's no sharper reminder of the real-life consequences of what Springer and his conspirators have wrought than the home-movie montages of anonymous kids — goofy, anxious, ordinary, no Teslas parked in their parents' climate-controlled garages — waiting to find out whether they've been admitted to the college of their choice, as if the chance was ever entirely theirs to begin with. B+