Netflix’s original documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues,” details how Rick Singer spent decades running the largest college admissions scam prosecuted by the Department of Justice. In 2019, Singer’s admission scandal was publicly announced, exposing major CEOs and some of Hollywood’s well-known names. One case quickly became the face of the scheme: Lori Loughlin, the “Full House” actor who paid half a million dollars to get her daughters, Olivia Jade and Isabella Giannulli into USC. Despite Netflix’s attempt to shed light on the corruption behind college admissions, the documentary’s message gets lost through its dramatization of the scandal and an unclear underlying message.
“Operation Varsity Blues” follows Singer (Matthew Modine) and his process of building an empire of fraudulent admission, depicted through reenacted scenes from Singer’s life. The exchanges were based off of real conversations caught on tape between Singer and his clients. Netflix’s method of creating a docu-drama ultimately failed to offer substance to the film and convey the gravity of the issue.
While the vignettes had potential to be a visually interesting way to tell Singer’s story, they come off cheesy and repetitive. Most of the film was filled with monotonous scenes of wealthy white parents discussing wanting their children to attend prestigious schools, worrying that the moral misconduct will “blow up in their face.” In between the dragged-out, dramatized reenactments are scenes of an FBI agent listening in on wire-tapped calls between Singer and his clients, which did little to elevate the film.
When explaining the scheme, “Operation Varsity Blues” takes many detours before arriving at its main point. Cliche scenes of foreshadowing are woven throughout the film, in which Singer examines a wilted leaf to signal that something very bad is about to happen, as if that wasn’t already clear to the audience. These moments do little to add substantial insight when explaining the scheme and ultimately distract and muddle the audience’s understanding of how the scandal unfolded.
“Operation Varsity Blues” recounts information that has been publicly released and fails to bring a fresh perspective to its viewers. The most notable and insightful interview was with John Vandemoer, former Stanford sailing coach and the only party directly involved in the scandal who agreed to take part in the documentary. Netflix invests a large portion of the film in building Vandemoer’s case and by the end of the documentary, viewers are pushed to sympathize with his story as opposed to identifying the real problems at hand or exploring the complex topics of wealth and white privilege.
Although the film touches on white privilege, it seems more invested in recreating corny scenes and justifying Vandemoer’s case than addressing corruption within powerful institutions. While the pursuit of exposing the admissions scandal was admirable and had potential, the approach distracts from Netflix’s attempted takeaway, making it difficult to successfully examine white privilege and the unfair system that is the college admissions process.