July 24, 2021

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‘Operation Varsity Blues’ review: Netflix’s hybrid documentary about the college admissions scandal barely passes the ‘worth watching’ test

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Of course, Lifetime already weighed in with its own quickie movie about the topic, but that only scratched the surface. Here, the filmmakers behind the “Fyre” documentary, Chris Smith and Jon Karmen, enlist Matthew Modine to portray the mastermind of the operation, Rick Singer, dramatically reenacting his wiretapped conversations with accomplices and the parents involved.

It’s a showy way of illustrating what happened, but as is so often true with such endeavors, too cute for its own good, blurring the lines between scripted drama and reality. Make a movie or make a documentary, but ultimately, make up your mind and pick a lane.

The feature-length film does provide greater insight into how the scheme worked, and the extent to which these wealthy parents lived out their own hopes and dreams through their kids. “The parents are applying to college, and the kid is the vehicle through which they apply to college,” says college admissions counselor Perry Kalmus.

Indeed, perhaps the most effective video woven into the documentary features kids exulting or deflating when they receive college notifications — one states feeling “broken” by a rejection — underscoring both the pressure they face and the youths deprived those triumphant moments because of admissions extended to peers whose parents used Singer’s “side door” to buy their way in.

Matthew Modine (right) portrays Rick Singer in the hybrid documentary 'Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal' (Netflix ©2021).
While the presentation focuses on Singer and the parents — including actor Lori Loughlin, along with Felicity Huffman among the higher-profile celebrity names — much of the material indicts the entire system. The issues raised range from the emphasis on universities bringing in vast amounts of money — including donations to “under the radar” sports — to cultivating college rankings that heighten competition to get into elite schools.
The interviews also include some of those swept up in the case, such as former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who pleaded guilty to arranging bribes for students with no experience who were designated as sailing recruits. Unlike several other coaches and administrators involved, Vandemoer didn’t keep the money himself, and he accuses his bosses of exhibiting general indifference toward his program except when he was passing along fat checks.

Akil Bello, a test prep expert, finally gets to the heart of the matter — and perhaps why so many had such a visceral reaction to this story — asking, “Why did these parents choose to cheat when their children had so much already?”

It’s a good question, as is the one about why “Operation Varsity Blues” felt compelled to dramatize a documentary that didn’t need any of that embellishment.

“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” premieres March 17 on Netflix.

2021-03-16 12:20:09

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