Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

 

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A questionable approach undermines, but does not invalidate, interesting documentary material.

 
Operation Varsity Blues The College Admissions Scandal

Matthew Modine

 

At the outset confusion sets in. Chris Smith's documentary begins with a two-part pre-credit montage that bombards the viewer but which, being all bits and pieces and edited at pace, fails to seize and build up our interest. Then there's the matter of the title itself: it's unnecessarily long and unwieldy and that is doubtless why Netflix is promoting this piece as The College Admissions Scandal rather than as Operation Varsity Blues. Once the credits do appear we are immediately alerted to the film's major misjudgment. Many a documentary features re-enacted scenes and this is often a device that plays uneasily as though the filmmaker is trying to kid the viewer that a camera was present to record some event unwitnessed by any outsider. Smith, however, takes the idea of such re-enactments to a whole new level and his film carries a large credit that reads "Starring Matthew Modine".

 

This misjudged approach is a pity because we have here a subject worthy of study in a documentary. The issue in question is that of wealthy parents paying money - sometimes amounting to huge sums - to ensure that their children win a place at top American colleges such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Central to the film is Rick Singer (this is the role enacted by Modine). Once a high school basketball coach, he built on that experience and on his knowledge of the admissions system to set himself up in a way that would make him a fortune: he advertised himself as an independent college counsellor whose services would ensure that your child would get in. A favoured tactic to make his scam work involved faking a claim that a candidate had non-existent athletic abilities. It would be made known that if the child were to be accepted the parents would then or subsequently wish to a make a significant donation to the college. Once the child had been taken on it was unlikely that anybody would subsequently make a fuss if it emerged that the student's ability on the sports field was less than had been expected. Another much used device involved a partner of Rick Singer who would secretly redo a child's entry test paper to gain a high score.

 

Trickery of this kind went on for some eight years or so and how it was done is intriguing as are the questions that arise regarding guilt. Singer and his partner were clearly villains, but the parents while out of order were seeking to provide a prestigious education for their offspring (the actresses Lori Louglin and Felicity Huffman were among those found guilty and sent to jail although their sentences were short). As for the children, many were doubtless unaware of what had been done for them but would suffer the notoriety when the press got hold of the story. Far more guilty in criminal terms were the college coaches approached by Singer who then collaborated with him and took their own rake-off. Even so the film does come up with one coach, Stanford's John Vandemoer, who never made any profit from this connection although the college itself did. The prospect of huge donations seems to have rendered the gifts promised through Singer an offer that these institutions couldn't bring themselves to refuse and, that being so, it is arguably those running these bodies that turned a blind eye to what was going on who come particularly badly out of this tale. 

 

But, if the facts are interesting in themselves, that does not mean that they readily lend themselves to filling out a full-length documentary feature. Details of how the scam was done do fascinate of course, but it is only late on when the FBI are alerted to it by chance (this was not until 2018) that the film takes on a sense of plot development with Singer seeking to save his own skin by actively co-operating in the FBI's investigation. Up to that point the film seeks to add additional information about Singer (a girl who knew him is interviewed) but nothing much is learnt despite the film jumping back and forth in time. The main distraction, however is the persistent intercutting between interview clips and scenes in which actors play out what we are assured are authentic transcripts of phone conversations even if curtailed. But what this means is that the film contains countless episodes showing phone calls that replay what we already know. Ultimately the material does come over as sufficiently worthwhile to make a mark. Nevertheless, a better structured work featuring longer interviews and with more parents and children involved would have made for a smoother and superior piece of reportage, one of greater depth and with no need of actors.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Matthew Modine, Wallace Langham, Roger Rignack, Angela Nicholas, Ken Weiler, William Christopher Stephens and featuring John Vandemoer, Akil Bello, Robert Fisher, Patricia Logan, Perry Kalmus.

 

Dir Chris Smith, Pro Youree Henley, Chris Smith and Jon Karmen, Screenplay Jon Karmen, Ph Britton Foster, Ed Jon Karmen, Music Leopold Ross, Nick Chuba and Atticus Ross, Costumes Natasha Newman-Thomas.

 

Library Films-Netflix.
100 mins. USA. 2021. Rel: 17 March 2021. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12.