OPERATION VARSITY BLUES
THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL
In Netflix’s latest offering of true crime content, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal connects all the puzzle pieces of the widely known controversy. Since 2019, this story has been a convoluted mess and this doc offers a pretty clean and clear way of explaining what happened, on top of shedding light on the facade of the American university hierarchy and admissions system.
The "mastermind" at the center of it all is Rick Singer. Along with Rick’s story, we hear from former admissions office personnel, coaches, counselors, and lawyers bluntly acknowledging the reality of getting into an elite college and how it ultimately means nothing if you don’t have twenty million dollars sitting around. It’s something that this entire scandal has opened the eye of many Americans, especially those who attend or aspire to get into these schools and struggle to pay the tuition on their own while keeping their grades up.
Unlike many documentaries of this style, Operation Varsity Blues doesn’t feel like a smear piece against Rick Singer. Rather, it angles towards suspicions and doesn't present things as hard facts without evidence to support it. All the information that was found in the research is designed to unfold in front of us the way it did to the subjects, giving it that extra touch of believability as opposed to sensationalising. There is a balance between the people who believed in him and the people who always kept an eye on him. The foolish con man that he was is just plain fact, not a scripted attribute.
The only questionable thing, for me, is the framing of the wire tapping. At the beginning of the story, the opening titles state that the reenactments are based off of real phone transcripts and the reenactment juxtaposes an agent listening in on the calls early on into Rick’s first couple schemes in 2011. However, the way the film explains later on is that the FBI don’t actually start wire-tapping him (and he starts cooperating with them) until he is sold out by a coach after they were sold out by someone else well into 2018. It’s possible I misunderstood but when I went back again to check it still felt confusing and out of order.
I see where the filmmakers are trying to go with the strong presence of the reenactments. It’s a trend we are seeing more and more every year. With other docs like Casting Jonbenet, The Social Dilemma, and Disappearance of Madeleine Mcann to name a few. It’s an artistic way to present findings to the viewer while also wanting to feel like an Aaron Soarkin film, but coming off like a polished episode of Forensic Files. I think the story could have benefitted without so much reenactment as the settings and performances start to feel repetitive and like they were reading straight from the transcripts.
The cold blooded transition into Olivia Jade's scandal was my favorite part. Her section of the film doesn’t offer anything new from what we’ve learned on the news, but is vital to the story and the initial public blow up. The filmmakers made the right decision not to focus too much on her, or any of the well known celebrity personnel that the news outlets relentlessly hammered into for months. It was refreshing just to be able to hone in on the root of the issue and the smaller players that had such a big influence. The students, who worked their entire lives to get the opportunity to even apply to these schools are the ones the film wants you to care more about, and rightly so. It’s no secret that the American Elite college culture is designed to make people think there is something validating for them once they get in the front gate, when in reality there is just more adversity waiting.
After two years, I feel as though the discussion hasn’t totally subsided and hopefully this release will help create a better timeline for the general public. Even though I think the pacing of this film could have been a little more efficient, I still encourage those who are interested in checking it out. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is now streaming on Netflix.