I had the wickedest thought while watching “Operation Varsity Blues,” Netflix’s docudrama about “The College Admissions Scandal.”
This is Hollywood’s revenge for the way that story was played in the American media.
Who were the faces of it? Two Hollywood parents trying to get C-student kids into A-list schools. Hell, the FBI even named their sting after a James Van Der Beek high school sports movie from 1999. And if the last four years of Ivy League-credentialed incompetence and corruption taught us nothing else, it’s that monied mediocrity isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon.
So forget you-know-her and you-know-her-better. “Varsity Blues” gives us Bill McGlashan and Jane Buckingham, Gordon Caplan, Agustin Huneeus Jr. and Devin Sloane. If there’s a sin of omission here, it’s that “Varsity” doesn’t paint — through casting actors to recreate incriminating phone calls — a broad enough portrait of the indicted and accused. It’s not just rich WASPs and Jews, but there are Asian and Hispanic parents who were in this mess, too.
“Tiger King” producer Chris Smith directed this hybrid documentary, using scores of interviews with journalists and a few principals in the story, guidance counselors, lawyers and Feds, and recreations — with actors — of the hours of intercepted phone negotiations between the rich and the “coach” who had the inside track, the “side door” way of getting their middling student into her or his preferred Destination College of Choice.
Matthew Modine plays Rick Singer, performing every line straight off of transcripts of those wiretaps, so immersed in the part that we get a real sense of what a driven, focused but myopic bore this fellow must be.
A workaholic, onetime college basketball coach (allegedly with anger-management issues, not seen here), Singer reinvented himself as a sort of “life coach” and “college prep counselor” who developed relationships at elite schools and a way to get kids into those schools without buying Harvard a new wing on this building or naming rights for that one. He had, to borrow the names his companies went under, “The Key” to help these “Future Stars” get into “the right college.”
Modine’s Singer (and others) explain that there’s a “front door” way of getting in to USC, Stanford, Princeton and Yale et al — merit, outstanding scholarship, acclaimed “interests and activities,” with the weight of “legacy” enrollment and protected minority status helping. The “back door” way is through BIG donations to the school.
The “side door” Singer exploited was often a bogus connection to “niche” athletics — rowing, sailing, fencing teams, underfunded corners of the Full Ivy League/Seven Sisters/Stanford et al “experience.” Photograph a kid on a sailboat, or photoshop her head onto a coxswain in a rowing racing shell, get the coach to sign off on this “talented” potential “walk-on” (non scholarship) “athlete,” and that “set aside” gets your kid in.
“A donation to my foundation,” we hear Singer pitch, is all it takes — a few hundred thousand. Because that “foundation” has to make a “donation” to that program, or its coach, among others.
Singer would fudge and exploit minority status, even have a hired “proctor” for your little darling’s SAT or ACT test, somebody who would “correct” the answer sheets to get the desired grade.
And it worked, for years.
Smith uses the breathless TV news coverage to paint a picture of the extent of the scandal, and montages of students anxiously waiting to see if they got into their first, second or third choice school to show us just what college has become — a zero sum, all-or-nothing, social-media bragging rights game of American elitism in action.
And the elite, to ensure they remain elite, are desperate to pass on their status to their little darlings by getting them into the schools that “everybody wants to get into.” A corrupt need arises, and a corrupt coach and his corrupt USC et al insiders move to fill that need and get rich in the process.
The whole “scandal” could seem overblown to anyone clear-eyed and cynical enough to recognize that borderline illiterates like Donald Trump or third-rate thinkers like Jared Kushner aren’t getting their educational pedigree on the up-and-up. What’s “news” about that?
Smith and screenwriter Jon Karmen those they interview personalize it, hint at how this sort of Late Roman Empire corruption eats away at institutions, rots society and populates the highest echelons of government and business (not science and art, supposedly) with Brett Kavanaughs, Amy Coney Barretts and serial bankruptcy princes with success at their feet if they’re not too stupid to run every business they take on bankrupt.
Touching on how the rich even exploit fake “minority” status will rankle many. Learning how Singer encourages kids to fake “special needs” testing status so that the rich and not-that-sharp get days to take a test (with extra time for cheating) that the rest of America has to take in a single morning is guaranteed to blow any college applicant’s fuse.
“Operation Varsity Blues” tends to overwhelm us with such details, and not every phone call is damning enough to merit recreation. There’s “mission creep” in the movie as it tries to dissect how “going to college” became “go to THE college” in the American mindset. And while there might be one actual “victim” in all this, it is impossible to feel sorry for any of these misguided parents or their children, even if “she/he could have gotten in on his own.”
But it’s a healthy reminder that fighting corruption, even in something as mundane as college admissions, is vital to society’s health, that Americans need to at least believe there’s a “level playing field,” and that not guaranteeing that is how we mediocre our way from the top of the world to Banana Republic in just a generation.
MPA Rating: R for some language
Cast: Matthew Modine, John Vandemoer, Naomi Fry, Daniel Golden
Credits: Directed by Chris Smith, script by Jon Karmen. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:42