Director: Chris Smith
Starring: Matthew Modin, Sarah Cheney, Josh Stamberg
Streaming platform: Netflix
It was a matter of time. Netflix has the ability to identify classic American scandals that drive the rest of the world: You guys What? Really? The typical Netflix documentary thrives on a standardized pattern – an investigative look-meet-Jerry-Springer tone that doubles as both tabloid feed and cultural research. Most non-Americans (like me) have a vague idea of the titles, but much of the novelty lies in seeing the pieces put together in the form of an appropriate story. In this sense, Operation Varsity Blues: The college admissions scandal is a little different from other juicy sensational sagas like Tiger king,, FYRE: The greatest party that has ever happened and Wild wild state.
On the one hand, the scam itself – involving a self-made college counselor working with wealthy clients to get their privileged children into Ivy League schools through a “side door” – is not particularly American. Honestly, it’s not even that shocking. I remember thinking: The FBI got involved this? By that logic, half of India would be behind bars. “Setup” is our middle name. The stunning First World Scandal is the Third World way of life. However, I envied the fact that the industrialists and Hollywood stars involved in this scandalous scam had no control over the media or the government. They could not buy the law. They could not intimidate their way out of trouble. Imagine this. (I’m sure actress Felicity Huffman was planning a better way to make her Netflix Original debut).
Another difference is the wide universal coverage and, in addition, the freshness of the event in the public memory. The film can add a little more through reportage or revelation. As a result, the route is not exactly the dream of a documentary purist. Director Chris Smith chooses to recreate the journey of the central figure of Rick Singer based on transcripts from the FBI. Actor Matthew Modin plays Rick Singer, and several other actors double as high-ranking parents seeking Singer’s help with curious phone calls. The re-creation is dotted with an intelligent assortment of talking heads – cultural commentators, journalists, lawyers, cops and students – as well as fleeting archival footage. In essence, the film becomes a hybrid docudrama, and in this process it affects neither the facts nor the fiction.
I suppose it is difficult to reveal the anatomy of fraud in a strictly documentary sense. Everything is very complicated. Parents donated to the Rick Foundation in exchange for a guaranteed place for athletic quotas at an elite college. The kicker, of course, is that these kids aren’t exactly athletes – Rick and his lower-level network of contacts and sports directors at institutions swear to give them a fake profile, which sometimes includes staging (water polo, sailing, basketball) photo shoots. This, combined with a standardized test rocket carefully conducted in various states, makes Rick go to a man for strong figures, desperate to give his children a five-star education. Given that the characters involved lead a secret double life – setting up a front to sell and buy “products” – perhaps the dramatized style (with artists filling in real people) makes sense on a strange metaphorical level. Or maybe I’m just grabbing straws for some meaning here. Lack of access aside, I see no artistic reason for a documentary to be shown instead of suggesting and telling instead of revealing. Unless it’s bad TV with patrol crimes.
But the only thing Operation Varsity Blues provides a sense of perspective. Those who know about our own fraud with Vyapam from 2013 will recognize a familiar ring. The story we see is that of Rick Singer, the leader of America’s biggest education scandal. But the documentary ultimately reminds us that he is just Frankenstein’s monster. This does not mean that Singer and the parents who want to circumvent the rules are the victims. But it’s the bigger picture that makes them possible. Singer simply sings about his dinner: it is the product of a capitalist system that turns parenting into a disease and ambition into a quantifiable asset. The film opens with a montage of real students who record their reactions to the results of the live reception. “Normal” people. The letters are rolling: Stanford, Yale, Harvard, USA, Brown. Some of them are in ecstasy, others inconsolable. This immediately sets the stakes, suggesting an ultra-competitive culture that is brainwashing teenagers to equate their future with the prestige of the name. As we watch these children tremble with excitement, one cannot help but wonder if they know exactly what they are mourning and celebrating. Are they really old enough to know the difference between education and higher education?
At the beginning of the documentary, the specifics of Singer’s scheme are revealed as a direct reef of the more traditional infrastructure. Its entrance through the side doors is not much different from the existing “back door entrance” – where the rich donate up to 40 million just for their children considered for a place. Seen from a more dramatic point of view, Singer’s entrepreneurial genius and his padded network of coaches and cohorts are the stuff of a classic outsider movie – one in which the lower rungs rebel against rich bosses who make all the donations without any accountability. The scary part: One can almost understand their motivation for inventing an illegal side door scheme to oppose the “legal” practice of the back door. Somehow, if they succeed, they are working class heroes, victims of the rich and stupid to get out of the system. If everything goes pear-shaped, which is true, then it’s hard not to look at Singer and the team as relatively poor in a game of conquered lands of kings and queens. This, of course, is a dangerous worldview for breastfeeding. But even more dangerous is that the real villains remain invisible in their iv (or) y-league castles. After all, the whole world is a reversal of ghosts.