Documentaries on current events typically benefit from some distance between the circumstances and the subsequent cinematic exploration of them. Not only does this space allow for much-needed hindsight to develop, thus providing a more substantive analysis of what went down and its impact on the world at large, but it also gives the audience some time to forget about many of the finer details surrounding the incident itself. Wait too long, and the relevancy dissipates. It’s a fine line for documentarians to walk, and Chris Smith has demonstrated this delicate balance quite skillfully as of late. Operating as Netflix’s in-house documentary filmmaker for the past several years, directing Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), Fyre (2019), The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (2019), and executive-producing Tiger King (2020) for the streamer, Smith has once again managed to frame a highly publicized present-day news report in a fresh and revitalizing way with his latest work, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.
Although this story initially broke in March 2019, the college-admissions scandal — code-named Operation Varsity Blues by the U.S. Justice Department — had already been unfolding for almost a decade. By the time the investigation and its related charges were revealed that March morning, more than 50 individuals had been accused of taking part in a vast conspiracy to manipulate undergraduate-admissions decisions at some of the most elite schools in America. All ultra-wealthy, the indicted included celebrities such as actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin and CEOs Gamal Aziz and Douglas Hodge among nearly three dozen other parents of college-age children and more than a dozen employees at various universities. At the center of it all — or rather on the side, as he would likely claim — is Rick Singer, a disarmingly plain man in his 50s whose scruffy salt-and-pepper hair and affinity for athleisure suggests an athletics coach, not a criminal mastermind. The 53 accused come nowhere near the more than 750 clients for whom he claims to have facilitated acceptance at top schools.
Singer’s appeal, while morally and ethically reprehensible, sort of makes sense when one considers the greed and wealth of his image-obsessed clients and the alternatives they faced when helping their children apply for college: There’s the so-called front door, which is the term Singer used to describe the typical application process, and the back door, which is what he called making seven- or eight-figure donations to universities in hopes of them giving the donor’s child’s application a closer look. Neither of these “doors” guarantees admission, and that uncertainty won’t do for a lot of people — they need a promise that their child will make it into the elite institution they’ve selected. Singer, then, presents these millionaires with a third option: the side door. This “side door” includes anything and everything. It includes bribing smaller, lesser-known athletic departments like crew or tennis to admit non-athletic applicants through the use of doctored photos and fake transcripts. It covers cheating on entrance exams by forging documents that falsely stated students had learning disabilities, providing them with the extra time needed for someone else to complete the test at one of Singer’s private testing facilities. When the alternative is shelling out tens of millions of dollars for a new university library, Singer’s clients got a lot of bang for their buck: He raked in $25 million in total from the 33 parents charged.
By tackling such a seemingly oversaturated subject like the college-admissions scandal, Smith had his work cut out for him from the start: How can one profile something that stayed in the news cycle for weeks on end just two years ago? Not to mention, Operation Varsity Blues is an ongoing thing — many parents and faculty involved in Singer’s scheme still await sentencing, including Singer himself. As it turns out, the key to covering the story in a way that doesn’t feel like a rehash lies in the transcripts. This whole affair is no secret, and boldface names like Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin will forever be linked to what went down. To spend too much time retelling the side of the story many already know would undoubtedly be a waste. Accordingly, Smith shifts the focus from the clients to the man those clients turned to: Singer, in all his idiosyncratic infamy.
Using only the call transcripts acquired by the Justice Department over the course of the Operation Varsity Blues investigation, Smith stages Singer’s many discussions with clients, recruiters, and faculty to paint a clear picture of what Singer did and how he did it. In a particularly inspired piece of casting, Smith recruits Matthew Modine to play Singer — in between the kind of straightforward talking-head interviews with journalists, legal experts, and former clients you’d expect from a run-of-the-mill true-crime doc, Modine convincingly reenacts countless incriminating conversations with the most prominent figures in his operation. Coaches, admissions counselors, parents, and even the occasional student: All are in on it, and all are willing to talk quite openly about it with Singer over the phone (while they’re unwittingly being recorded). These dramatizations are the perfect touch needed to elevate Operation Varsity Blues from blandly uncomplicated to formally fascinating.
Although the celebrity angle is certainly still present — for example, an extended sequence takes a deep dive into Laughlin’s daughter Olivia’s YouTube channel to reveal that signs of Singer were hiding in plain sight — Operation Varsity Blues is better for largely excising the more well-known players from the narrative and focusing exclusively on Rick Singer and the people who enabled him and his side doors every step of the way. No one will ever feel bad for the wealthy individuals who tried and failed to cheat a system that was already tailored toward them, but Smith has found a way for audiences to still connect with the story emotionally: by drawing its pathos from the students who were shut out from these schools and the faculty who were unfairly caught in Singer’s crossfire simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. More than Smith’s creative spin on true crime’s wont for dramatizations, this identification of the real victims of Operation Varsity Blues — not the schools, not the parents, not Singer, but the ones left to piece together the broken system — is what truly resonates.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is now available to stream from Netflix.