Our Take: 4 Stars
The Netflix documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” dives into the life of Rick Singer, the man who orchestrated the largest college admission scandal in U.S. history.
Many viewers learned of the shocking scandal first-hand as the case unfolded the spring of 2019. Details emerged about the wealthy families who had paid off colleges to ensure their children would have guaranteed entry into top schools. The media latched on to the racketeering conspiracy as fifty people were indicted for mail and wire fraud, including big celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.
However, the celebrities involved were minor players in the larger scheme that is examined in “Operation Varsity Blues.”
Anyone hoping to watch the demise of Singer’s wealthy clients may be disappointed. Many celebrities that appeared in the documentary acted as vehicles for the machinations of Rick Singer, though most others were wholly left out.
“Operation Varsity Blues” is less the story of the scandal itself, but of the mastermind behind it and the system he exploited.
Rick Singer, the enigmatic college admissions advisor who convinced parents that the only guarantee for admittance into college was through money and connections, is made the star of the documentary. Singer exploited the “side doors” of the American college admissions system to guarantee wealthy families’ children admission into prestigious colleges. These “side doors” really meant paying off colleges to accept students as falsified recruits for “niche sports” that were underfunded and receive little coverage.
Singer sold his strategy by claiming that the “back door” option into college meant making millions in donations to schools like Georgetown, Boston College, USC, UCLA, Berkeley and even Tech.
Comparatively, Singer’s company provided foolproof entry into these colleges for a fraction of the “back door” price. He preyed on wealthy families who wanted to solidify their social status by sending their children to the best schools, and convinced parents that paying one’s way into college was a common and necessary practice. As college counselor Perry Kalmus said in the documentary, “the parents are applying to college and the kid is the vehicle through which they apply.”
Olivia Jade, daughter of Lori Loughlin, is highlighted as one of the students who is entangled in the scam. Despite her countless influencer vlogs revealing her hatred for school, Oliva was admitted into USC with ease.The documentary contrasts Olivia’s admission into USC with other students’ rejection videos, emphasizing the unfairness of being born into a world of privilege.
Singer’s scheme is unraveled by the revelation of Olivia’s admittance, and his demise quickly follows.
The rise and fall of Rick Singer makes for a thrilling contextualization of the scandal that Netflix was quick to capitalize on.
“Operation Varsity Blues” is on par for a standard Netflix true crime doc.
The drone shots and ominous score are paired with re-enactments of wiretapped phone calls and traditional interview segments to transport viewers to the world of Rick Singer.
Singer, portrayed by Matthew Modine (“Stranger Things”) in re-enactments of his wire-tapped conversations, is presented as an incredible salesman able to goad parents into thinking their children would have no chance of getting into college without cheating the system.
What the documentary uncovers from analyzing the investigation of the scandal is that the capitalist nature of educational institutions and the desire for faux prestige spills over into college admissions.
The unsatisfying conclusion to the documentary leaves viewers with one frustrating truth — the wealthy parents did not pay for the consequences of their actions.
Was a few months in jail and five-figure fines enough to change the lifestyle of the privileged?
Unfortunately, the scandal was purely a result of the rich possessing the money to buy their way into an already corrupt system. As the documentary puts it, the scandal was as much the fault of the wealthy using money to have their way as it was the colleges themselves for allowing “side doors” to exist in the first place.
In the end, Rick Singer is as much an enigma to the audience at the conclusion of the documentary as the beginning. While he remained at the heart of the scandal, his motives to exploit the college admission system remains unclear.
Whatever his reasons, Singer made promises he could not keep. “Operation Varsity Blues” reveals the darker side of the college admissions process, and the idea that anyone can get into college if they work hard — or if they have enough money.