(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: A documentary about the 2019 college admissions scandal, where the rich and famous spent lots of money to bribe their kids into Ivy League schools.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: In 2019, the college admissions scandal became big news, primarily because a few celebrities were caught up in it, including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. The clunkily-named but otherwise compelling Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal attempts to break down what happened here, and the end result is going to fascinate you and make you furious.
Rather than present a straightforward, paint-by-numbers documentary, director Chris Smith, who helmed the doc Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, takes a rather interesting approach here. Using call transcripts, Smith stages elaborate recreations of what happened, complete with actors playing the folks involved with the scandal. This is intercut with interviews with real people, and all of this combines to create a cinematic documentary that will have you hooked and end up leaving you seething.
The story is primarily focused on Rick Singer, the guy who put all of this together. Singer is played here by Matthew Modine, and Modine portrays the man as an aloof, cold, strange figure who finds himself a niche: getting wealthy kids into wealthy schools. As Operation Varsity Blues points out, Singer’s approach wasn’t entirely unheard of. For years and years now, colleges have been willing to give special consideration to prospective students if their obscenely wealthy parents are willing to provide a hefty donation. In fact, schools still do this – and it’s seemingly perfectly legal.
Singer’s approach, however, took things even further. After being paid off by parents, he bribed faculty and staff members of various Ivy League schools to ensure that his client’s kids could get in the door, usually via phony sports scholarships. Time and time again, Singer would photoshop the kids of his clients into images that had them participating in sports they never actually played. It all went the extra mile toward selling the potential students as swimming, or lacrosse, or sailing stars in the making – all they needed was a foot in the door.
The galling thing about all of this is that the wealthy parents probably could’ve gotten their kids into these schools the legal way by making a donation. And yet, despite that, they were still inspired to cheat. This, coupled with the fact that the door is open to rich donors to begin with, goes a long way toward making the entire Ivy League experience seem extra ludicrous and offensive. The message seems to be that even if you’re the smartest student in the world it won’t really matter to these schools unless you have a ridiculous amount of money to back it all up.
Operation Varsity Blues stumbles here and there – the story is so laser-focused on Singer that everything else kind of takes a backseat, and I wanted more info on certain details. But overall, this is an interesting, maddening documentary that reminds us that money really is, unfortunately, everything.
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