Review: ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ reveals not all that glitters is gold

By Jasmine Smith, April 13, 2021

There comes a moment in high school students’ lives when college admissions loom, especially with the competition of being admitted into top schools growing increasingly cutthroat as acceptance rates fall each year.

Last month, Netflix released “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” a captivating documentary exploring the scandal of how Rick Singer illegally enrolled children of wealthy, elite families — like the daughters of Lori Loughlin — into top colleges.

The documentary reenacts scenes from recorded phone calls and interviews with people who knew Singer and includes news clips relating to the subject. Viewing these scenes allowed for a better understanding of the scandal and how it was being operated from the universities, coaches and parents’ perspectives. The crimes came to life on the screen as each process was explained piling the outrageous actions.

Singer, the mastermind behind the scheme, starts off as a legitimate college counselor after being let go as a basketball coach in the 1990s. College counseling was a new concept when Singer understood the rules of the admission game from coaching athletes.

Former clients recalled their experiences with Singer as the go-to counselor at the time and the best at his job, making viewers wonder what caused Singer to change his approach to success.

The documentary proceeds to reveal how Singer began cutting corners to enroll his clients into college, foreshadowing what is to come later. One of the ways was by changing students’ race from white to Black to qualify for affirmative action.

In multiple scenes, Singer easily gets away lying about various information. Throughout the film, the lies and bribery grow into a web, trapping those coming in contact with Singer.

From the beginning, the documentary discusses how wealthy students boast greater advantages compared to the average student. These students can afford SAT preparation classes and private college counselors, yet they still cheated. With all the access at their fingertips, their parents still wanted more.

The film cuts to various professionals providing insight into how intense college admissions are and the lengths parents are willing to go to ensure their child’s success, which was eye-opening. Director Chris Smith excels in emphasizing how ridiculous and complex the entire situation is. A scene that perfectly captures this is when one of Singer’s client photographs their son in a shallow pool to impersonate as water polo player to be admitted to universities through the sport.

This can be seen when professionals discussed that universities already have a skewed preference for applicants who are rich and white. Having the side door is excessive when students from affluent families already have a better shot of admission, like Jared Kushner, whose father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University.

The clips of real-life students acknowledging that there’s no surprise that opportunities open to those who can afford luxury are sad. What’s even worse is that wealthy parents seem to want their children to attend elite universities solely for bragging rights.

What is even more infuriating was a video of Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, repeatedly stating she did not even want to go to college. It was an “eat the rich” moment because she was ungrateful for an opportunity so many students could only dream of.

At one point, there is a small amount of hope that the people involved will be punished like they deserve to be. However, in this materialistic world, money grants wishes — even to the guilty.

Though the documentary isn’t as enticing as other films, it succeeds to illustrate the mind-blogging, complex behind-the-scenes of the national scandal with a delightful mix of reenacted scenes and interviews that make the film enjoyable.

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