etflix quickly learned that there are a lot of miles in all-American scam stories. The streaming service’s Fyre Festival documentary was a key viewing when it was released in 2019; Later this year, the streamer will unveil Inventing Anna, a drama based on the exploits of super-producer Shonda Rhimes’ “false heir” Anna Delvey. Before that, however, Fyre director Chris Smith turned his attention to the college admissions scandal, a case that has demanded real criminal treatment since the story broke two years ago.
If 2019 sounds like ancient history, here’s a reminder. That spring, an investigation codenamed Operation Varsity Blues found that wealthy families had used bribes to secure places in prestigious universities for their children, as part of a program organized by William ‘Rick’ Singer, a former basketball coach turned independent college advisor.
Smith’s film takes an unusual approach, mixing interviews with commentators and key investigators – including federal agents, lawyers, and a former Stanford sailing coach – with dramatic reenactments, featuring the actor Matthew Modine as the singer. Reenactments like this so often run the risk of being deeply silly, turning a lucid investigation into a made-for-television movie. The experience pays off, however, as as a warning towards the beginning of the film ratings, the conversations are taken from wiretap transcripts released by the US government.
As well as giving these scenes increased verisimilitude, many of which take place against the backdrop of vast estates and swimming pools, the overwhelming sensation is listening to the super-rich. The minimalist score, co-written by Atticus Ross, is surely meant to recall The Social Network, another study on Ivy League privilege.
Singer’s program proved so popular with worried upper-middle-class parents, it seems, as it occupied a gray area, exploiting pre-existing loopholes in the system. He euphemistically called each successful case finding a “secondary door” in these elite institutions (entering on merit would, according to his logic, be entering through the “front door”, while making donations multi-million dollar route would be the “back door” route.)
The parents would donate money to his charitable foundation, which he could then pass on to contacts within the college to soften the deal. According to one talker, his USP promised “the certainty of being admitted at a bargain price” – relatively speaking, of course. It was a cheaper option than handing in several millions to build a new library, for example, but most Singer customers still ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It would help tell stories for high school kids, often involving success in under-the-radar sports, and could have a repairman take SAT or ACT tests on their behalf. Some of his methods – such as photoshoping teenagers into sports action shots to shape a compelling career as a high school water polo champion or as a star member of the team (surely a top contender Americanism of all times) – seem downright laughable; others, like encouraging white college students to change races on application forms to qualify them for affirmative action programs, are deeply depressing but not entirely surprising.
These programs have worked, in large part because, as one expert points out, the college admissions system is based on a series of “preferences that distort the rich and the whites”, welcoming students who can demonstrate their ability. mastery of niche middle class activities such as fencing, horse riding or water sports. . The culture of giving in these institutions also meant that an endowment of half a million dollars to a varsity sailing club, for example, would not be considered a red flag.
Aside from some talk about Loughlin YouTuber’s daughter Olivia Jade (whose association with the scandal prompted Sephora to pull her makeup collaboration from their stores), the film largely bypasses celebrity cases and is at its most compelling – and infuriating – when it places Singer’s project in a system which is clearly not fit for purpose. These leading colleges don’t just sell education, they offer prestige and social power, as well as the ability for parents to have, as one interviewee put it, “bragging rights.”
Towards the end of the film, journalist Naomi Frye suggests that the case captivated us mere mortals because it showed “a bit of justice being done in a sea of injustice.” The emphasis should be on “little” because Operation Varsity Blues only serves to highlight that there is one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest of us. It’s a fascinating, if deeply disheartening, glimpse into America’s upper echelons, just another example of how the super-rich can bypass a system that is already stacked in their favor.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is available to stream on Netflix from March 17th