Operation Varsity Blues is Netflix’s next must-watch documentary


The day I got into college was probably the greatest of my life. I can map out precisely where I was, whom I was with, and what happened in the hours preceding and proceeding. I’m 100 percent certain that I wouldn’t feel half as good that evening if I had known that my admission was facilitated by unjust or even illegal means. If I was a betting man, I’d feel like a cheater for the rest of my life, let alone the years that I spent as a student at college.

So it’s incredibly difficult to fathom the captivating and sensationalized paradigms of the families indicted in Operation Varsity Blues, the infamous college admissions scandal that is the titular focus of the new Netflix documentary, Operation Varsity Blues, out today.

What’s far easier to imagine are the environmental (monetary) conditions, the exponentially-mounting high school pressures, and the self-ascribed collegiate “prestige” – a word incisively tarnished in the movie – that said families had to factor into their decisions and ultimately reckon with. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal summarizes the scandal’s laundry list of notable occurrences through heavy-handed dramatic interpretation and informative talking heads, landing on surface-level conclusions regarding culpability and systemic distrust.

Is Operation Varsity Blues good?

Operation Varsity Blues recognizes its audiences’ level of familiarity with the event – perhaps even catering to judgments about it – and makes the right move by taking a step back and adopting a big picture approach.

The documentary, directed by Fyre director Chris Smith, starts out by pointing to what the scheme’s mastermind, Rick Singer, initially keyed into as a frequent desire of many a well-to-do parent: get their kids into the best universities. His gift of gab and disposition as a go-getter formulated his experience as a college counselor and morphed it into what he named his “side-door” path to acceptance. This involved, as the public already knows, cheating on standardized tests, falsifying athletic participation and even lying about race to game the affirmative action part of the admissions process.

Because the FBI wiretapped Singer’s phone (though it’s unfortunately not divulged how), the documentary uses dramatic portrayals to display the exact things Singer and his clients said, using phone transcripts as scripts and actor Matthew Modine as the Singer surrogate. It doesn’t work, partly because of how hard it is to recreate the speech patterns of unscripted conversation under the pretense of dramatic reenactment, a lack of raw audio from the calls themselves notwithstanding. But it’s also an analogous crutch in a genre that relies on fact, especially when the hot-button subject at hand is so prevalent and publicized. It’s a simple, unthoughtful choice to make (one that worked effectively in the more figurative The Social Dilemma), and it should have been scrapped.

On the compelling side, Operation Varsity Blues features interviews with individuals at various levels of familiarity with Singer and his clients, as well as some of the clients. The movie spends the most screen time with former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer. He (and his lawyer) makes the case that his communication with Singer was primarily transactional, that his program would receive “donation” money from Singer in order to maintain a “working relationship” with him that involved Singer bringing “prospective sailing recruits” to his attention (I hope I’m not Bennet Brauer-ing this up).

If one person involved in Operation Varsity Blues is depicted as remotely sympathetic, it’s Vandemoer, but this claim comes with the utmost trepidation. Many of these cases, as is detailed in the ending section, are yet to be fully resolved. And even if they are, they may have fallen prey to the intricacies of the American judicial system, which notoriously prefers clean breaks to drawn-out resolutions.

On the other hand, much of American society and media coverage distinctly thrives on the release of accusations – however unfounded – and guilt before proven innocence, which, rearing its head here, is one of the key tenets of cancel culture. To paraphrase one of the talking heads, society loves these people and hates these people. They’re engaging to watch, but every bit of content risks fueling some of the resulting madness. Operation Varsity Blues believes it’s above this discussion by referencing its conclusions, but in capitulating to the discussion itself in format, how can it be?

What undoubtedly draws the most ire here are the universities. Operation Varsity Blues takes plenty of worthy, earned jabs at the value of collegiate prestige, the management of university funds, and the projected lie that “money doesn’t buy happiness”. The film is at its best when professing how frequently universities wince at their “backdoor options” while all the while facilitating its ability to be used. The extent to which colleges affect the livelihoods of families, idealize the perfect growth experience, and entrench inequality into society – it’s impossible to come away from the documentary without the conception that universities are lucrative, sometimes seedy, American businesses first and foremost.

Whether this malaise is what’s received by the majority of Netflix viewers remains to be seen – if it comes up that people in the Netflix demographic just to find out what’s up with Olivia Jade, I wouldn’t be shocked. If you’ve heard at least some of what the scandal is about, Operation Varsity Blues makes for a well-balanced, surprisingly empathetic crash-course documentary. And it does a fairly solid job of observing the conditions that allowed this to survive and prosper in the first place, both conceivable and unfathomable alike.

50 best Netflix movies to watch right now. dark. Next