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“Operation Varsity Blues” documents our fascination with elitism

New Netflix documentary recounts college admissions scandal of 2019

On a fateful March day two years ago, Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and a number of other established professionals were implicated in an elaborate college admissions scandal. For those who had spent hours writing, fretting and crying over college applications, the existence of such a scandal felt euphoric: The process was actually rigged. 

Earlier this month, Netflix released “Operation Varsity Blues,” a documentary titled after the code name of the incendiary case. For two hours, the dealings of Rick Singer, slimy college counselor turned actual criminal, are catalogued: elaborate SAT and ACT cheating methods, fake athletics photographs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to school administration officials. 

“Operation” approaches the scandal like a textbook, relaying the events chronologically and precisely. The documentary is mainly composed of two types of scenes: reenactments and interviews. Knowing that the dramatized reenactments are all based on actual wiretap recordings from the case make the illegal conversations especially fun to watch; it is hard to believe people would detail so many illegalities over the phone as Singer and his clients did. 

The most interesting interviews featured in the film were with those directly involved in the scandal: a Stanford sailing coach who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and Singer’s ex-girlfriend. Most analysis of the scandal, though, is performed by people in the college coaching business. This creates an unfortunate blind spot in the documentary: Are we to believe that honest, “law-abiding” college coaching is a shameless endeavor? It’s hard to trust a documentary where being on the good side would mean aligning yourself with a tutor who claims that anybody who pays for his business could ace the ACT. Netflix, though, prizes intrigue over nuance.

As with many Netflix-produced movies, there’s nothing particularly special about the film itself. The acting is mediocre. The script literally wrote itself. The tired 21st-century technique of using shots of search engines and YouTube clips to emphasize Our Digital Age is employed with a heavy hand. 

The jewel of “Operation” is really the subject, and Netflix doesn’t take care to decorate the rest. The documentary bets that our intense fascination with the rich and their dealings, with the deep class divides in America, with the obscurity of the college process, is enough to make up for the shoddiness of the actual film itself. It seems to be a safe bet.

What is most surprising about the documentary — perhaps the only actual surprise — is the opulence of the houses in the reenactments. One sits atop a Californian vineyard. Rows and rows of vines circle the house on its red hilltop. Another is a modern ranch home, blindingly white and tackily huge. It seems a neverending expanse of gaudiness, encasing a teal pool with an accompanying spa. There are lots and lots of open floor plans, taupe bedspreads and marble islands.

In this vein, “Operation” does a good job of revealing exactly how rich these people really were. They had houses and jobs and lifestyles that all provided them with exorbitant, stable, impenetrable status. These figures could not be toppled by a dip in the stocks or a mismanaged venture. So why did they think their lives could be overturned by a Princeton rejection?

As the documentary discusses, being wealthy requires all the dressings of wealth: the second houses, the private jets, the cars, the suits. A child at an Ivy League — regardless of the child’s desires or actual capabilities — is like another wing tacked onto your Southern California mansion. Building out your property only requires a few permits and a construction crew, while getting your child into Harvard requires beating out 99% of the brightest 18-year-olds in the world. But wealthy parents approached these obstacles the same way. It was their right to up their status, to increase their comfortability, to build their lives outward and upward. Their kids were their own property; with enough money and dedication, they could, as with their luxury homes, renovate their children and thus their own elite standing.

By the end of the documentary, though, the rich parents’ attempts at “home improvement” are discovered by the FBI. Parents are carted off to prison; Olivia Jade, the YouTuber daughter of Loughlin, is harassed by the paparazzi as she leaves an IKEA; Singer takes daily jogs as he awaits trial. At this point, perhaps because ending here would be too predictable, even for Netflix, “Operation” points the final spotlight on the schools. 

Though entering through the “side door,” as Singer calls it, is now harder to accomplish, there are still many fully legal ways to cheat your way into college. Schools, in fact, rely on these cheaters to fund their bloated endowments. The documentary ominously ends with white text overlaid onto a clip of Singer’s actor jogging in slow motion: “The ‘back door’ remains open at many colleges, for those willing to pay.”

Selective universities could be blamed for many world problems. Their dedication to enabling and protecting elitism, to commodifying education, is one of them. But our own intrigue with “Operation Varsity Blues,” what drove people to watch this movie two years after the initial incident, is also culpable. Our fascination and disgust with the elite also allows for their continued existence. We have created fake rankings for universities that protect a fake idea, which resulted in parents faking credentials to gain fake prestige. That is not to say ideas have no material power, that the idea of an elite can’t ruin lives and threaten American culture. It certainly can. But such ideas require some level of buy-in — not just from the relatively small number of parents who risked jail time so their kids could be in a Yale secret society, but from the general population too.

“Operation” shouldn’t have ended with a call for abolishing Ivies, though that would have added a much-needed shock to the film. It also shouldn’t have ended by blaming all the viewers so interested in the scandal. So long as elitism exists, there will be institutions to prop it up, and there will be tangible consequences to being accepted or rejected by those institutions. But there could have been space for some introspection, some investigation into our own elitist tendencies. Considering the scandal was told through an array of “independent college counselors,” though, that may be asking too much.



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