If 2019 feels like ancient history, here’s a refresher. That spring, an investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues revealed that wealthy families had used bribes to guarantee places at prestigious universities for their children, as part of a scheme organised by William ‘Rick’ Singer, a former basketball coach turned independent college counsellor.
Smith’s film takes an unusual approach, mixing interviews with commentators and key players in the investigation – including federal agents, lawyers and a former Stanford sailing coach – with dramatic reconstructions, which star actor Matthew Modine as Singer. Re-enactments like this so often run the risk of being deeply naff, turning a clear-eyed investigation into a made-for-TV movie. The experiment largely pays off, however, because as a disclaimer towards the start of the film notes, the conversations are taken from wiretap transcripts released by the US government.
As well as lending a heightened verisimilitude to these scenes, many of which take place against the backdrop of sprawling estates and swimming pools, the overwhelming sensation is that of eavesdropping on the super-rich. The minimalist score, co-written by Atticus Ross, is surely intended to recall The Social Network, another study in Ivy League privilege.
Singer’s scheme proved so popular with concerned upper middle class parents, it seems, because it occupied a grey area, exploiting pre-existing loopholes in the system. He referred to each successful case, euphemistically, as finding a ‘side door’ into these elite institutions (getting in on merit would, by his logic, be entering through the ‘front door,’ while making multi-million dollar donations would be the ‘back door’ route.)
Parents would pay money to his charitable foundation, which he could then pass on to contacts within the college to sweeten the deal. According to one talking head, his USP was promising “certainty of admission at a bargain basement price” – relatively speaking, of course. It was a cheaper option than handing over several million to build a new library, say, but most of Singer’s clients still ended up paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He would help spin backstories for the high-schoolers, often involving success in under-the-radar sports, and could arrange for a fixer to take SAT or ACT tests on their behalf. Some of his methods – such as photoshopping teenagers into sporty action shots to fashion a convincing career as a high school water polo champion or as a star member of the crew team (surely a contender for the best Americanism ever) – seem frankly laughable; others, like encouraging white students to change their race on application forms to qualify them for affirmative action programmes, are deeply depressing but not altogether surprising.
These schemes worked, largely because, as one expert points out, the college admissions system is based on a series of “preferences that skew rich and white,” welcoming students that can demonstrate proficiency in niche middle class activities like fencing, horseback riding or watersports. The donations culture at these institutions, too, meant that a half a million dollar endowment to a university’s sailing club, for example, wouldn’t be considered a red flag.
Aside from some discussion of Loughlin’s YouTuber daughter Olivia Jade (whose association with the scandal prompted Sephora to withdraw her make-up collaboration from their stores), the film largely side-steps the celebrity cases and is at its most compelling – and enraging – when it places Singer’s scheme within a system that is clearly not fit for purpose. These top tier colleges aren’t just selling an education, they’re offering prestige and social power, as well as the chance for the parents to have, as one interviewee puts it, “bragging rights.”
Towards the end of the film, journalist Naomi Frye suggests that the case captivated us mere mortals because it showed “a little bit of justice being served in a sea of injustice.” The emphasis should be on “little,” because Operation Varsity Blues only serves to underline how there is one set of rules for the wealthy and another for the rest of us. It’s a fascinating, if deeply dispiriting, insight into America’s upper echelons, just yet another example of how the super-rich can short circuit a system that is already stacked in their favour.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is available to stream on Netflix from March 17