Directed by Chris Smith, known for his work on the documentaries “Tiger King” and “Fyre,” “Operation Varsity Blues” tells the sordid tale of the 2019 college admissions scandal primarily through reenactments. There are also interviews with everyone from co-conspirators to bystanders in the field of higher education. The film peers past the sensational tabloid headlines and social media gossip in order to get a more in-depth look at what happened and why.
The documentary focuses primarily on Rick Singer, the kingpin of the operation that saw the powerful and wealthy be charged with conspiracy to commit fraud. For years, Singer had run The Key, a “for-profit college counseling and preparatory business” that, at face value, simply coached high schoolers through applying to their ideal colleges.
In reality, Singer was playing a dangerous game that involved manipulation, lies and bribery. As is revealed through reenactments of real wire-tapped audio, Singer was actually encouraging parents to help the families cheat their way into college.
The real key was a sizable donation to Singer’s foundation, Key Worldwide, which would open doors to any and every school they could possibly want their child to attend. Singer forged transcripts, photoshopped images, and bribed those in admissions in order to get wealthy children into schools known for being selective.
“Operation Varsity Blues” takes an in-depth look into Singer’s methods. It tells more about the case than what any of us saw in the headlines, revealing that the reality of the situation isn’t quite as simple as we thought. Like its predecessors, “Operation Varsity Blues” feels more like a piece of entertainment than a traditional documentary—but that isn’t to say it is purely a fluff piece.
The film doesn’t hold back from tackling some rather hefty topics. Throughout the film, the issue of America’s obsession with “good” colleges is addressed. Smith seems to encourage a thoughtful examination of the oftentimes problematic culture of college prestige. Why, Smith asks, were these parents so desperate to get their children into these colleges? How did the fascination around prestigious colleges lead them to seek out Singer’s assistance?
If the celebrity intrigue of the case is what’s most appealing to you, “Operation Varsity Blues” has plenty of material to whet your appetite. There’s an entire sequence of the film dedicated to Olivia Jade, the influencer daughter of Lori Loughlin, the actress best known as Aunt Becky on “Full House.” This sequence examines the public reactions to the case, from those directly involved to long-time fans of Olivia Jade.
The case of Felicity Huffman, known for her role on “Desperate Housewives,” is also addressed. In fact, it’s with this sequence that we first learn of the duplicity and manipulation involved in the case.
“Operation Varsity Blues” brings these issues to light and leaves the viewer with a sense of unrest. Though Singer’s “side door” to elite colleges—the bribery and fraud that allowed his clients access to otherwise unattainable schools—is now closed, countless “back doors” still exist. Plenty of families still pay their children’s way into higher education. “Operation Varsity Blues” ends on this note, asking us all to consider the corruption inherent in the American college system.