Director: Chris Smith
Cast: Matthew Modine, Sarah Chaney, Josh Stamberg
Streaming Platform: Netflix
It was only a matter of time. Netflix has a knack for identifying classic American scandals that make the rest of the world go: You guys did what? Really? The quintessential Netflix documentary thrives on a standardized template – an investigative-gaze-meets-Jerry-Springer tone that doubles up as both tabloid fodder and cultural exploration. Most non-Americans (like myself) are vaguely aware of the headlines, but much of the novelty lies in seeing the pieces put together in the form of a proper narrative. In that sense, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal is a tad different from other juicy sensationalist sagas like Tiger King, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Wild Wild Country.
For one, the scam itself – featuring a self-made college counselor who works with wealthy clients to get their privileged kids into Ivy League schools through a ‘side door’ – is not distinctly American. To be honest, it isn’t even all that shocking. I remember thinking: the FBI got involved for this? Half of India would be behind bars by that logic. “Setting” is our middle name. A First World’s stunning scandal is the Third World’s way of life. I did, however, envy the fact that the industrialists and Hollywood stars implicated in this infamous scam had no control over the media or the government. They could not buy the law. They could not intimidate their way out of trouble. Imagine that. (I’m sure actress Felicity Huffman had planned a better way to make her Netflix Original debut).
Another difference is the wide universal coverage and, by extension, the event’s freshness in public memory. There is little more the film can add by way of reportage or revelation. As a result, the route it takes is not exactly a documentary purist’s dream. Director Chris Smith opts to recreate central figure Rick Singer’s journey based on FBI wire-tap transcripts. Actor Matthew Modine plays Rick Singer, and several other actors double up as the high-profile parents seeking Singer’s help on curious phone calls. The recreations are interspersed with a smart assortment of talking heads – cultural commentators, journalists, lawyers, cops and students – as well as fleeting archival footage. In essence, the film becomes a hybrid docudrama, doing justice to neither fact nor fiction in the process.
I suppose it’s hard to reveal the anatomy of the scam in a strictly documentary sense. It’s all very elaborate. The parents donate to Rick’s foundation in return for a guaranteed athletic-quota seat in an elite college. The kicker, of course, is that these kids are not quite athletes – Rick and his network of lower-level contacts and sports directors across institutions conspire to give them a fake profile, which at times also includes staged (water-polo, sailing, basketball) photoshoots. This, combined with a standardized testing racket carefully orchestrated across states, makes Rick the go-to man for powerful figures desperate to give their children a five-star education. Given that the characters involved are leading secret double lives – putting on a front to sell and buy “products” – maybe the dramatized style (with artists filling in for real people) makes sense on a strangely metaphorical level. Or maybe I’m just clutching onto straws for some meaning here. Lack of access aside, I see no artistic reason for a documentary to show rather than imply, and to tell rather than reveal. Unless it’s trashy crime-patrol television.
But the one thing that Operation Varsity Blues does provide is a sense of perspective. Those aware of our very own 2013 Vyapam scam will recognize a familiar ring to it. The story we see is Rick Singer’s – the mastermind behind America’s largest ever education scandal. But the documentary ultimately reminds us that he is simply Frankenstein’s monster. That’s not to say Singer and the parents willing to bypass the rules are the victims. But it’s the bigger picture that enables them. Singer merely sings for his supper: he is the product of a capitalist system that turns parenting into an illness and ambition into a quantifiable asset. The film opens with a montage of actual students recording their reactions to live admission results. The ‘normal’ people. The letters roll in: Stanford, Yale, Harvard, USC, Brown. Some of them are ecstatic, others inconsolable. This immediately defines the stakes, implying the presence of an ultra-competitive culture that brainwashes teenagers into equating their future with the prestige of a name. While watching these kids tremble with excitement, one can’t help but wonder if they know exactly what they’re mourning and celebrating. Are they really old enough to know the difference between education and higher studies?
Early on in the documentary, the specifics of Singer’s scheme are revealed to be a direct riff on a more traditional infrastructure. His side-door entry is not very different from the colleges’ existing ‘back-door entry’ – where the wealthy donate upto 40 million only for their kids to be considered for a seat. If seen from a more dramatic perspective, Singer’s entrepreneurial genius and his underpaid network of coaches and cohorts are the stuff of a classic underdog movie – one where the lower rungs rebel against the rich bosses who pocket all the donations without any accountability. The scary part: One can almost understand their motivations behind concocting an illegal side-door scheme to counter the “legal” backdoor practice. In a way, if they succeed, they’re working-class heroes preying on the rich and foolish to out-system the establishment. If it all goes pear-shaped, which it does, then it’s tough not to look at Singer and team as relative paupers in a game of land-conquering Kings and Queens. This is of course a dangerous worldview to nurse. But it’s even more dangerous that the real villains remain invisible in their iv(or)y-league castles. After all, the whole world is a backdoor for ghosts.