Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
I think I have spoken about it a bit before now on this site but it came to mind again watching this documentary, so I thought I would regurgitate a little I went to a not great all-boys secondary school in an inner city. The percentage rate of students who went on to third level at the time was far below the norm, and I remember the pressure that would come down in terms of gaining that level. It was made clear to us, by a succession of teachers, guidance counselors principals, etc, that if we did not buckle down and do a good Leaving Cert, then we would get an insufficient amount of CAO points, and then we wouldn’t go to college, and then we wouldn’t get a job and then we would be the down-and-outs of society. The pressure was always there, multiplied by the well-meaning but arguably more damaging pressure of parents at home. You had to go to college, and they didn’t mean an IT or vocational school.
That miserable time in my life was firmly in my mind watching this recitation of the 2019 college admissions scandal in the United States, a country that seems to delight in taking problems that are serious in other countries and blowing them up into full-scale crises. It’s the sort of issue, a combination of easy corruption/avoidable mental health problems/a discussion oust what education is meant to be, that is ripe for a good documentary to explore, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone with more value in the documentary field right now than Glenn Smith, whose Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, is probably the most memorable offering to the genre of recent times. When I got round to it I was into this story, and intrigued about Smith’s method of telling it: was docudrama the way to go, or did it cheapen the seriousness of what was being discussed?
Ryan Singer (Matthew Modine) made a very lucrative career out of so-called “side-doors”: underhanded, and ultimately illegal, means of getting the children of rich clients into America’s top universities when they couldn’t get in the conventional way, or through direct donations of millions of dollars. Exposed in 2019, Singer’s operation resulted in large-scale indictments, but it was a crime more complicated than just the rich gaming the system.
Operation Varsity Blues, named for the FBI investigation that finally brought Singer’s enterprise down, is hit-and-miss. It tells a very interesting story of one of the worst examples of wealth-based privilege of recent times, but the manner in which it tells this story is decidedly strange and, ultimately, to its detriment. This is a project where it seems obvious to me that they couldn’t decide whether they wanted it to be a dramatisation or a documentary: the mix of the two brings the worst of both worlds, and little of the best. Lifetime made a fully fictionalised version of this story, with Michael Shanks in the role of Singer, and I think I would prefer to seek that out then watch this again. It at least sounds like it has a clear picture of what it wanted to be.
Simply put, make a movie or make a documentary, but don’t make both. After all, the “script” for the drama sections is almost entirely taken from FBI transcripts of Singer’s calls with his many clients, so you have a headstart on a screenplay right there. I say this with a huge degree of sympathy for the cast here, who simply cannot bring this film to life: they are essentially doing an impersonation of the people involved, instead of actually playing those parts. Modine, a very good actor when the material is better, can’t do anything with what would be, in a very different production, a very interesting part .
The moments when Operation Varsity Blues attempts to delve into Singer’s motivations – his failed basketball coaching career, his similarly failing romantic entanglements, the lifestyle he was able to afford with what he was doing – are easily the best parts, but they are rare deviations from the main point, which is mostly a salacious expose of rich people trying to bend the rules for their overly-entitled children. Singer is, as he was when this story broke, mostly an enigma in Operation Varsity Blues, with the viewer never really getting a grasp on this manipulator.
The gimmick of having professional actors in place to deliver the dialogue, interspersed with plenty of talking heads, loses its luster very quickly. There is only so much of Singer somehow being able to convince people that their child hasn’t a hope in hell of getting into college without him before we start to want something more substantial. It’s frustrating because right from the start Field seems to be looking more for something akin to the excellent Fyre, with Operation Varsity Blues opening with a collation of “reaction” videos as a succession of disappointed students record their immediate emotions after finding out that they will not be going to Stanford. Such trauma – and it really is trauma – is a a really good way of opening this story, but Operations Varsity Blues will not stay on that track. The “ordinary” kids are just not the focus here, instead it is on the likes of Felicity Huffman and their offspring.
In that regard also there is a big focus on those kids who had a substantial social media presence who, knowingly or unknowingly, benefitted from this scheme. From and centre is Olivia Jade, the daughter of fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Lori Loughlin, who was already something of a big deal before she got accepted to USC on a back of a fraudulent rowing skill. It seems at times like Operation Varsity Blues is making us want to hate these people, contributing to a social media dogpile that, at time of this documentary’s release, has largely subsided. I’m just not interested in that kind of angle: Jade might seem like the kind of blithely carefree “influencer” that should be easy to despise, but there’s no indication that we should see her as anything other than a victim.
Much more interesting in that sense is the time that the documentary devotes to John Vandemoer, the sailing coach in Stanford who ended up pleading guilty to charges, but maintains his innocence of any intentional wrong-doing. There is compelling evidence to suggest that he has a case, having not benefitted financially to any degree, and the supposed “victim”, in the form of his employer Stanford, coming out ahead to the tune of $770’000, money they certainly did not give up. Vandemoer seems tailor made for a Jon Ronsen “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” type project that gives him more attention than Blind is inclined to do here.
The film has a deeper flaw, in that it is content to scratch the surface of the problem with college admissions in the United States. Actually, that’s not even true, it scratches only a very specific part of the surface of the problem, zeroing in on how people with money are able to gain advantages for their children, and on the situation that has arisen where Ivy League schools have maximised their attractiveness while decreasing their admittance numbers. The larger calamity with the American system, that has helped to create the conditions for everything else, gets only scant attention.
There’s so much to unpack there: the SAT test that was invented by a eugenicist; the shockingly obvious racial and class biases that infect the system; the fees, that mean students are in a mountain of debt the moment that they enroll; the insane pressure of “AP” classes and how students pick them; a government and media that is happy to perpetuate the system as much as they can, right down to artistic mockery of schools that don’t have Ivy League admissions standards; and then we can talk about how rich people have inherent advantages, and then we can talk about how the system is tailor made to encourage an atmosphere of corruption. Operation Varsity Blues has no interest in being a cipher for that larger discussion.
If nothing else, Field directs a good looking production, and knows a little something about the proper framing to emphasize a point. It is something else, to see the rich and powerful, but not “mega-rich”, complain about wanting to have a “level playing field” while they talk to Singer outside of their mansions or at the side of their swimming pools. Suitably moody shots of Singer out for numerous jobs infest the running time, and there is a good intermingling of the fictionalised footage with the talking heads and with various social media footage from prospective students. Then again there is only so much of seeing Singer on the phone while doing household choirs that you can take.
Operation Varsity Blues is a real let down, after the director’s previously outstanding work in Fyre, a documentary that captured the imagination in its depiction of a moment that exemplified an entire movement of social media. This film has the chance to do many things: to be an expose on the entirely broken college admissions system in America, to be a spotlight on some of the supposed criminals of this scandal who were really anything but and to put the focus on the larger group of victims, they being the less rich kids of the United States. Instead, it has a very narrow view of the whole affair, preferring to craft something that seems more like a case of feeding into a tabloid-esque narrative when it isn’t a largely hamstrung character study of Ryan Singer, with the hybrid model of narrative presentation not up to the task. This film want us to point at jeer at people like Felicity Huffman, but then doesn’t want to follow-up on people like her who have faced remarkably little sanction for what they did (she got 12 days in prison and a fine), or give the right amount of attention to the people denied because of what she did. Field has done a lot better than this, and done a lot better in the not too distant past: I’m hoping whatever he comes up with next is an improvement. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).