Smith: Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)
Since the College Admissions Scandal of 2019, three equally flamboyant adaptations have been released – a Lifetime film, called The College Admissions Scandal, a musical, called Ranked, and a fictionalised account, written by Julie Buxbaum, called Admissions. The extravagance of these three adaptations suggests that documentary won’t quite cut it when it comes to this particular instance of white-collar crime, just because so much of it happened was in plain sight to begin with – the presumed inviolability of its key participants is part of the point. Chris Smith’s documentary, Operation Varsity Blues, responds with a return of the re-enactments that were once a hallmark of true crime television, but have been largely excised by the Netflix house style that has driven more recent true crime. The result is just as flamboyant, in its own way, as the earlier adaptations – and every bit as excoriating as well.
Of course, since this is a documentary, there’s more scope for an analytical and systematic account of the crimes, and the role of Rick Singer, who made it his mission to “help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into college.” Rick’s basic shtick is that there are three ways to get into exclusive colleges – through the front door, the back door and the side door. Getting in the front door means getting in on merit, while getting in the back door means getting in through donations. Once upon a time, he observes, the back door was a reliable alternative for wealthy families, but changes in college culture, and increasing competition, mean that even the most preposterous donations can’t guarantee a place any more. As a result, Rick advocates a third path – the side door, which he makes his speciality.
For all the bluster, the side door is basically a scam dressed up as an investment. On the surface, Rick simply appears to be brokering his connection with college admissions officers, but in reality his business involves sustained fraud – fraud so outrageous it calls the entire college admission system into question. Often the most egregious fraud involves sport, since elite sports, especially those sports like equestrian, sailing and water polo, that are mainly practiced at private schools, seem to be the best point of entrance. Rick, who started as a basketball coach, and claims to know the head of every NFL and NBA franchise, goes to incredible lengths to present his clients as elite sportsmen or sportswomen, even when they’ve never been near the game that they’re supposed to excel at. Obviously, this process depends on a complex network of conspirators that the film evokes more than establishes.
While Rick’s behaviour is certainly outrageous, director Chris Smith also frames it as the logical conclusion of the SAT, the ideology of standardised testing, and the college counselling industry that profits from it. We hear from a variety of experts who succinctly critique the commodification of higher education – when everything depends on your SAT, and people charge hundreds or thousands by the hour to game the SAT, then the SAT ultimately becomes an indicator of socioeconomic status rather than true academic ability. Similarly, going well on the SAT, and getting into a prestigious college, becomes an act of class solidarity amongst the very wealthy. As many of these experts point out, the SAT is often just a way for parents to apply to colleges, using their children as the vehicle, rather than a true academic indicator.
The College Admissions Scandal thus becomes a symptom of a bigger scam in higher education – the scam of prestige, which artificially and arbitrarily elevates some colleges over others, and reduces the content of a degree to the university where it was obtained. There’s a kind of honesty to Rick, since he’s just taking the top US colleges on their own terms, as a class racket. What he’s doing is not that far from normal procedure, or normal ideology – or at least it’s not hard to see how it could become normal procedure. So attuned is he to the synergistic space between wealthy families and privileged universities that he probably wouldn’t have been caught (or caught for some time) if it hadn’t been for a totally unrelated securities fraud in which the villain confessed to college scandal to buy himself some leniency.
Capturing this kind of systemic sweep is hard in a documentary, especially while remaining focused on criminal particulars. It’s even harder when the systemic issues are so normalised, and so repressed, as they are in this case, so it makes sense that Smith responds by resurrecting one of the true crime staples that has been most repressed by the Netflix house style – re-enactments. To some extent, overt re-enactments are necessary to differentiate the documentary from Rick’s reality show, which he started late in his career to give a fly-on-the-wall insight into the legitimate sides of his college counselling procedure. Yet the re-enactments also foreground the forensic facts of the case here, since the FBI investigation started with recorded conversations, and then proceeded to making contact with Rick, and inducing him to try and entrap his clients with further and more incriminating conversations.
Since these conversations went on for a long time, it’s easy for the film to re-enact full conversations. Watching them is like being in on the FBI sting, immersing us first and foremost in the small details and banalities of Rick’s wheeling and dealing with the rich and famous. Most conversations are punctuated with pretentious flourishes and phrases that are almost as repulsive as the criminal content, while Smith’s selection perfectly captures the rhetorical tropes that Rick’s clients use to justify their white collar-crime to themselves. Most of them adopt a pre-emptively apologetic tone, as if already preparing for the possibility of prosection, while many take on the role of a naif or ingénue, or else invoke their own professionalism in an apotropaic manner (“I’m a lawyer, so I’m very rules-oriented”). Throughout all these exchanges, the documentary quality is actually enhanced by the re-enactments, and by the presence of Matthew Modine as Rick, since the very fictionality prevents the wealthy from simply resetting reality, or controlling the narrative, through their extensive PR machinery.
These recreations are also partly about evoking the properties and amenities of the parents – creating a mise-en-scene of wealth, insularity and inviolability. Most of the the houses look like they belong on Ivy League campuses, or adjacent to Ivy League campuses, while the re-enactments nearly always chart sidebar conversations – in hushed tones, away from the main business of the household – which means we’re typically presented with a wealthy parent and their mansion, divorced from any family ambience, even as they claim to be supporting their family. In practice, this usually means that we’re on the back patio, overlooking a property that extends so far that it may as well fade into an Ivy League campus in the background (at once point we glimpse a funicular sweeping off to an unimaginable distance).
Most critically, however, the re-enactments preclude the parents from performing even the most residual PR when it comes to their representation in the documentary. There’s only one interviewee associated with the scandal, and he’s a recruiter, not a parent (and pretty hardly done by, given that most other people got off scot free). There is not a single interview with a parent in the film, nor is there any footage of previous interviews or media appearances. Instead, Smith resorts to cursory Google and Google Image searches to introduce each parent, often opting for the most basic stock footage before shifting to recreations. It’s as if the film is so sceptical of the power of the wealthy to garner sympathy, kudos and pathos that it can never engage with them on their own terms, or include any remotely empathic depictions. Smith just allows their words and actions to speak for them, leaving no space for them to massage humanity back into their crimes through their command of PR in the film’s present.
All the rawness that might have been gained from engagements with these parents is instead redirected back into a series of college admissions videos. Before watching the documentary, I wasn’t really aware of this YouTube genre, which seems to be an American phenomenon – high school students filming themselves as they click on their college admission link, to record their disappointment or ebullience for posterity. There are several interludes that focus on these videos, which absorb the intensity that a more conventional documentary might have channelled into footage of the parents, forming a stark contrast to the stateliness of the recreations. These videos perfectly capture college admission as a class threshold, a point of upward or downward mobility – the SAT as a key funnelling point for American class politics.
These YouTube videos also hold a special place for the parents in the College Amissions Scandal. While they cheat and lie for their children, they also don’t want their children to know – they want them to get that acceptance, believe it’s authentic, and film themselves believing it’s authentic. In other words, the scandal is an exercise in naturalising class – parents making their children feel as if class is something that they inherently and intrinsically deserve, rather than a set of privileges that they have arbitrarily and artificially inherited from their family wealth. In effect, these parents aim to provide their kids with an authentic acceptance video on YouTube, much as the logical endpoint of coaching culture, as Rick understands it, is to monetise the “authentic” sense of class that comes with an acceptance.
It’s tragicomic, then, that the exact opposite happened in this instance. While the transcribed conversations are criminally implicating, they’re most shocking when they reveal just how brutally and clinically the parents here discussed their children as agents and continuants of their own class privilege. This in turn gives way to a comic third act, in which class privilege turns into class oblivion. One of the FBI commentators observes that “historically, white-collar defendants have almost no filter on the phones,” and that certainly plays true here, as these wealthy elites go from performative naivete to genuine naivete, engaging with conversations with would have signalled entrapment within seconds for organised criminals. There is a comment here, then, on the sheer ineptitude of white-collar criminals – and their ability to be inept, since, at the end of the day, their wealth and protection will eventually override it.
That’s just what happens here – none of the parental participants saw more than six months jail time, and many saw much less (or none at all). For the first and only time in the film, Smith cuts from re-enactments to real footage in the closing scenes, shifting from actors to parents as we’re taken through one pitiful sentence after another. The truth, here, is stranger than any recreation, but it also needed those recreations to distance us from the ways these parents would surely have justified it to themselves and to others – justifications that Smith avoids and excludes as judiciously and artfully as he can, in his own gesture of class solidarity.
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