The juiciest celebrity scandals often expose something that deep down many of us already suspect about the way the world actually works. That was certainly the case with the FBI’s “Operation Varsity Blues” sting, which captured the public imagination when the news about it broke back in March of 2019. The feds confirmed that several mega-rich parents had paid millions of dollars to an academic “coach,” Rick Singer, who then bribed university officials and even paid a professional test taker to get his clients’ children into elite colleges. Part of what made the story so sensational was the high profile of the names involved—including the well-known actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. But the wave of arrests also felt like a righteous, overdue reckoning for all those folks who think having a lot of money entitles them to cut in line.
But was all the outrage misdirected? Chris Smith’s Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal re-frames the story in unexpected ways. While it doesn’t let the Huffmans and the Loughlins of this whole sordid saga off the hook, the movie does suggest there’s more to be upset about here than just the coddling of some undeserving rich kids.
Smith has had an eclectic and adventurous filmmaking career, ranging from wry slice-of-life documentaries like American Movie to gently arty mood pieces like Home Movie and grabby journalistic exposes like Fyre. With Operation Varsity Blues, Smith and his writer/editor/producer Jon Karmen combine some rigorous reporting with some daring storytelling choices, shaking up the common documentary conceit of the “dramatic reenactment.” Relying mostly on the official transcripts from FBI wiretaps, the film has a cast of accomplished actors—including Matthew Modine as Singer—treating the telephone conversations like a script, which they imbue with real energy and nuance.
Those reenactments make up about half the picture, and are scattered throughout. The rest of Operation Varsity Blues more closely resembles a conventional documentary, using old news footage—including clips of the real people that Modine and the rest of the cast are playing—and original interviews. Most of the interviews are with the journalists who covered the story, though Smith’s team also talks extensively to some people who knew Singer personally, as well as to the former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who feels he was unfairly indicted for choices beyond his control.
Vandemoer’s testimony is essential to Operation Varsity Blues’ larger point. Much of the initial coverage of the scandal focused on one of Singer’s clever backdoors into the most prestigious universities. He’d target coaches of underfunded athletic programs like water polo, tennis and rowing, sending their departments (or sometimes just the coaches themselves) big donations in exchange for a few guaranteed spots on their teams, which his phony “student athletes” would never actually take. According to Vandemoer, this palm-greasing and favor-trading is business as usual at the most exclusive colleges—and it happens right out in the open. He insists he took none of Singer’s money for himself. He gave the check directly to his boss, who, tellingly, did not lose his job—because banking big deposits from donors pretty much is the job.
What this documentary suggests is that while Singer was facilitating fraud by faking transcripts and massaging exam scores—all with his clients’ tacit and at times explicit approval—he was ultimately just taking advantage of a system the top universities have set up, which is already unfairly biased toward the privileged. Parents with the means already spend piles of money on tutors to improve performance on standardized tests, and they already look for the angles that other, poorer applicants aren’t playing—from writing big endowment checks to convincing pediatricians to diagnose their youngsters with learning disabilities.
Unfortunately, while Operation Varsity Blues is acutely critical of the gatekeepers at the in-demand colleges—many of whom feel their acceptance letters are too valuable to send out without some kind of kickback—the film’s biggest fumble is its lack of input from the academic side. Vandemoer has a lot to say about how things worked at Stanford, but he’s no longer employed there. Even if spokespeople from the implicated universities like Yale and Georgetown just reverted to boilerplate statements (or “no comment”), hearing something from them might’ve been more pertinent than hearing the gossipy impressions of people who’ve hung out with Singer.
That said, it’s hard to fault Smith and company for putting Singer at the center of their movie—and not just because Modine is so cooly charismatic as a slick-talking schemer. The transcripts the actors and filmmakers are dramatizing say so much about the real expectations of Singer’s clients, who seemed to care more about saying their kid got into USC than in what actually might happen once they got to campus. What becomes clear in this film—if it wasn’t obvious already—is that sometimes the ways in which the rich and powerful thrive have nothing to do with merit. Sometimes they just buy access to people like Singer, who are good at selling their customers a story they can tell.