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‘Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal’: Disappointed But Not Surprised

College Admissions Scandal
Felicity Huffman (left) and Lori Loughlin (right) implicated in the scandal.

Roar writer Bébhinn Cogan on Netflix’s “‘Operation Varsity Blues’- The College Admissions Scandal”.

In 2019, the College Admissions Scandal made headlines worldwide. The scandal saw wealthy and influential parents illegally buy spots for their children in prestigious universities across the United States. This is distinct from the legal, albeit morally dubious, practice of donating large amounts of money to a university with the hopes that this wins good graces and guarantee your child admittance. The scandal was made all the more intriguing by the complicity of celebrities Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and Lori Loughlin of Full House; tabloids ate this up. Netflix’s new documentary “‘Operation Varsity Blues’- The College Admissions Scandal” offers an in-depth look into the scandal and its mastermind, Rick Singer. 

The “side door”

Under the direction of Chris Smith, who brought us the popular documentaries “American Movie” and “Fyre”, the ambitious, sharp character of Singer is brought to life. In a series of dramatic reenactments, Singer, played by Matthew Modine, is seen negotiating with wealthy parents and college sports coaches. What he sells is a “side door” admissions scam which includes photoshopping the students’ head onto water-polo players or rowers and or paying an expert to sit SAT and ACT exams. He explains that “a side door at Harvard is about 1.2 million”, a bargain compared to the tens of millions donated to elite universities via the “back door”. And crucially, this side door, according to Singer, is a guarantee. This hooks anxious parents for whom admittance of their child to a ‘top school’ carries great social caché. 

Wire-taps

While dramatisations in documentaries are often cringe-worthy and fail to add greater insight, Smith has struck gold with his primary source material. The dialogue featured is directly adapted from FBI wire-tap recordings. In fact, the title of the documentary is inspired by the witty name for the FBI investigation; ‘Operation Varsity Blues’. This makes the revelations made on the phone all the more shocking. A former prosecutor interviewed admits that “it truly is amazing what people will say on the phone when they don’t know that the feds are listening”.

This contrasts with other depictions of white-collar crime, most notably acclaimed television series “The Wire”, in which all characters are very careful not to reveal too much over the phone and so use codes and burner phones as a precaution. The candid nature with which the parents speak of their children’s ability cause audiences to wince. “My younger daughter is not like my older daughter,” Michelle Janavs reveals, “she’s not stupid.” Here, we are reminded of the place of the child in this, some of whom are let in on the scam, others left completely oblivious. 

Olivia Jade

Perhaps the most talked-about character in this saga is influencer and daughter of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, Olivia Jade. Her story, which stirred up a huge media frenzy in 2019, makes for an interesting case study in the documentary. While other characters are played by actors with a spooky likeness, Olivia Jade plays herself. Clips of her vlogs uploaded to YouTube while she was in high school are included. She appears on screen posing on a rowing machine for fake, altered pictures. Later, she is seen lamenting her return to school; “I’ve gone to one class, and I already want to die”, admitting that her parents “made me go to college”. Smith contrasts this with real footage of students being rejected from dream schools. It is no mystery what conclusion the audience is encouraged to draw. 

While this scandal has been adapted several times already; the Lifetime television film “The College Admissions Scandal” (2019), the Granite Bay High School musical “Ranked” (2019), and the novel “Admissions” by Julie Buxbaum (2020); this documentary provides the clearest, most revealing look into all the salacious details. The wire-taps and interviews with admissions experts and journalists add to the piece’s credibility. Smith is adept, as seen in his other work, at building tension through slow zoom-in shots of Singer on the phone and an ominous score throughout. The high-stakes, cut-throat world of college admissions is laid bare. It is a story that infuriates and disappoints, but are we really surprised?

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