“Operation Varsity Blues” goes to great lengths to recreate the series of events that led to the breaking of the college admissions scandal in Spring 2019. Interviews, re-enactments and real life footage are spliced together to show the rise and fall of Rick Singer’s scheme to get the children of wealthy families into prestigious colleges using what he called a “side door.”
The documentary boasts its realism in the beginning saying all the phone conversations were real calls tapped by the FBI. The timeline is a bit confusing because it has re-enactments of conversations introducing the families, yet Singer’s calls don’t start getting tapped until later when one of his clients is being investigated for an unrelated case. It makes me wonder how many of the calls we see are actual re-enactments, and which are guesses.
Despite the notoriety of Singer’s case, the documentary itself is quite boring. I found myself struggling to stick through it. I think the documentary spends too much time trying to establish how sketchy he is through interviews with people that knew him, like former clients and school counsellors. They run through the numerous college counseling companies he created throughout his career and shift between characterizations of Singer as charismatic or standoffish. I think it was intended to add to the mystique of who he really was behind all of his secrets, but it just came off as filler.
What I found the most interesting was how he got in with the athletic directors and test proctors he bribed to admit his clients’ children and the tangled web of people that got roped into his schemes. John Vandemoer, a former sailing coach at Stanford, is painted in the most sympathetic light. He and his lawyer talk about how he got involved with Singer and said he was the most innocent person in all of this because he didn’t know the bribes were bribes. Singer painted them as donations to the sailing program. Vandemoer also said the athletic director knew Singer and complimented his ‘fundraising efforts.’ Stanford denies their athletic director had any relationship with Singer.
I enjoyed the larger conversations started in the documentary about how a college education is being turned into a commodity that can be bought for the right price and these prestigious universities are harming students by lowering their acceptance rate to further their national rankings. They said students from higher income families score better on standardized tests, yet these people still cheat to get their kids admitted. I feel like this fact and the scandal can be linked to colleges beginning to phase out testing requirements for admission.
The film’s most compelling scenes were clips of students getting their admissions letters and reacting to whether they were accepted or denied. One girl whose application was rejected said in a home video, “I’m really disappointed, but I know the people who got in are really deserving.” Then it cut to Olivia Jade Giannuli who got the most public backlash when the story broke. The implication that wealthy students are buying their “deserved spots” out from under qualified students is evident in these scenes.
In the end, I liked the combination of interviews and re-enactments, but the documentary fell short due to the amount of exposition and filler.
“Operation Varsity Blues” premiered on March 17 on Netflix.