Netflix’s documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal tells a story of the college bribery scandal orchestrated by the college admissions counselor Rick Singer. The scandal broke out in March 2019 and involved wealthy families from across the country, including Hollywood celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who all used Singer’s services to secure their children’s admission at a college of their preference. More than 50 people have been accused of involvement in the scandal. Some of their trials are still ongoing, including that of Singer himself, who pleaded guilty, cooperated in the indictment of his clients, and currently awaits trial.
Operation Varsity Blues is The Social Network meets true crime murder documentary. The soundtrack is especially reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score for David Fincher’s 2010 film set in Harvard. The documentary combines interviews with a live-action reenactment of wire tapes between Singer and his clients. Without the recordings, there appears to not be a lot of material for the documentary to go on with, so live action scenes are necessary to tell the audience a cohesive story and keep it engaging. However, sometimes the documentary seems to get slightly carried away with theatrics, especially when pushing the ‘Singer as the mastermind’ narrative.
The murder mystery element comes through in the film’s clear focus on Singer’s persona. Throughout the documentary, we learn a lot about his past, living habits and even catch a glimpse of his dating life. Similar to all true crime documentaries, Operation Varsity Blues seems fascinated with what kind of person would get sucked into the life of a scammer and be so successful at it. Singer is continuously described as a mystery man, a “cipher.” While this may be true, is the mystery of his persona worth deciphering?
The critique of the system that has allowed for Singer’s illegal business to thrive and for the legal “back door” of college admissions to exist in the first place is largely kept on the margins of the conversation. The fact that schools have been positioned as the victims of the scandal rather than perpetrators or enablers of the crime is only mentioned in passing and not problematized enough.
Instead, we are reaffirmed in what many of us have already known or begun to suspect – the fact that the prestige of American colleges (including high ranking) does not necessarily reflect the quality of their academic programs, that high school students today become increasingly more obsessed with getting into the ‘right’ college that would look good on their social media pages, and that the admissions process is highly flawed in its design which is skewed towards white and affluent members of society. The latter is a particularly nuanced issue as the application process involves many steps, including taking aptitude tests, the objectivity of which has been largely questioned.
Unfortunately, there are no interviews with people who benefited directly from Singer’s work: students he helped to get admitted. Many of them appear to have been shielded from the reality of the crime by their parents to a certain degree. A closer look at how the largest college admissions scam has affected these young people could have helped the audience better grasp what was at stake there.
The documentary ends with a hopeful comment about at least some form of justice coming out from all of this. While it is true that many who have been charged with a crime in relation to the scandal have since been sentenced, we have to wonder what kind of difference their prison sentences make. The fact that Loughlin was sent to a correctional institution that reportedly offers a wide range of recreational activities, including yoga, for two months does not aid the pertinent problem of American higher education, which has always been racially and income biased but now has reached the new levels of commodification. If anything, it only reminds us of another problem of the drastic difference between how incarceration looks for rich white people compared to minorities, especially Black women.
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