Operation Varsity Blues Review: Remember when in March 2019, news about a massive scam surrounding top Ivy League colleges in the US rocked the entire world, and amongst the numerous people indicted were two of Hollywood’s most famous faces: Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman? Yes, now Netflix has a docudrama on the same that delves beneath the headlines.
Operation Varsity Blues focuses on William Rick Singer, the academic ‘coach’ who received 25 million dollars in seven years from celebrity parents to get their children through elite schools like Yale, Stanford, UCLA and USC. The Netflix docudrama gets its title from the FBI’s code name for its investigation of Singer, his associates and his clients. Many parts of Operation Varsity Blues is a straightforward documentary, with snippets of interviews from different people who personally knew Singer. Although the rest is a re-enactment of the obtained FBI transcripts of wiretapped conversations, with actors portraying the relevant people. Director Chris Smith, who had previously directed the documentary Fyre based on the Fyre festival fraud, is again in his best form, juxtaposing the traditional form of documentary with a more dramatic performance of reality.
What Is It About?
Hailing from Sacramento, Singer was the workaholic sort as remembered by the witnesses who knew him from the start. “He always dressed like he had just come from the basketball court. His idea was that what he was doing was coaching kids for getting into college, so therefore he dressed like a coach,” a former client reminisces in the docudrama. For Singer, there were three ways to get into a good college. First there was the “front door” through which only the smartest could enter. Then was the “back door” where parents would make donations the size of tens of millions to the college and it took their children in.
The last, which was Singer’s creation, was the “side door” where ultra-rich parents would pay him around 500,000 to 1 million dollars and he would then bribe university officials to secure team scholarships for sports that the student never played. He would even photoshop images of these students playing a particular sport (as in the case of Lori Loughlin’s two daughters, take photographs of them on rowing machines) to suggest the admissions board that these were athletes the colleges should fund. Sometimes Singer would also bribe the proctors administering SAT tests to change the answers of a particular student so that they would get a score of 1,500 points or more. And interestingly, part of the scam was also about the lengths he was instructed to go to by these parents to hide the deception from the very students who were giving the tests.
Matthew Modine plays Singer to perfection and the screenplay is a rip off of the verbatim from FBI transcripts. The interviews shown are ones with journalists who covered the case, people who knew Singer personally and also with the former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, the only person in the docudrama who was directly involved in the scandal.
A Critique of Meritocracy
While director Chris Smith puts Singer at the centre of his work, he also puts together what can be seen as a searing criticism of the education system and the concept of meritocracy. Singer is shown as somebody who was merely another person taking advantage of a system that is already biased towards the ultra-rich. The stamp of these elite institutions have become a status symbol for people who can afford it nonchalantly, nevermind whether they even need that degree or not. Being born to privileged parents who have the means to spend piles of money on tutors to improve performance on standardized tests, they are already ahead of other, poorer applicants in ways more than one.
Thus circles the system of oppression, where colleges and universities end up selling prestige to a club of powerful aristocrats while the rest of the population is unable to afford these places of higher learning. And while Singer and his clients might face jail time in the face of pending charges, Operation Varsity Blues suggest that the problem doesn’t end with Singer being put away – the structures he exploited are still very much in place for another like him to misuse.
The docudrama, shot during the lockdown period, has a minimalist aesthetic to itself. Although perhaps the biggest downside was the lack of any consequential input from the academic circles of institutions that were part of the scandal. And while watching Operation Varsity Blues may leave you angry at the coddling of a few undeserving rich kids, you eventually realise that what it is showing is a tale as old as time: of the insatiable greed of a few who already have more than anyone else in the world and how it ends up taking away from the ones who are nearly dying to make their everyday ends meet.
Picture Credits: The Associated Press
Views expressed are the author’s own.