Paying up, getting in | March 26, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 26, 2021

Paying up, getting in

Netflix doc "Operation Varsity Blues" delves into college admissions scandal

3/4 stars (Netflix)

Money talks in every aspect of American life, a history we're doomed to repeat. Lately, the scuttlebutt's been about the well-connected "jumping the line" for vaccines, but it wasn't so long ago that scandal erupted in the sphere of college admissions. The nationwide bribery scheme, which broke in 2019, included a Stanford University sailing team coach as well as parents from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Hillsborough among the dozens indicted during the investigation.

Netflix revisits this recent history in its new, utterly fascinating, and plenty juicy white-collar crime documentary/docudrama "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal."

Director Chris Smith, well known in the documentary world for such films as "American Movie" and the Netflix docs "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond" and "Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened," elevates the art of reenactments to fuel his account of independent college counselor Rick Singer and the conspiracy he coordinated. Between 2011 and 2018, and with increasing sophistication, Singer infamously guaranteed parents the desired college admissions for their children <02014> for a price. "Operation Varsity Blues"—named for the FBI investigation into Singer, his clients and his collaborators — intriguingly psychoanalyzes the mastermind, seen in archival video footage but also played by Matthew Modine of "Full Metal Jacket" fame.

Singer scoffed at the "front door" of colleges (whereby students earned their own admissions) and decried the "back door" (donations in the tens of millions to all but guarantee a spot by sanctioned bribery). Instead, he built his own "side door" into colleges: targeted bribes to athletic programs — funneled through Singer's bogus philanthropic organization — that would gain mostly nonathletic students spots on college teams and, with them, admission to the college of their choice.

In a nod to convention, Smith employs bits of news footage and expert talking heads, including former Stanford University admissions officer Jon Reider (whose observations are as informative as they are delightfully acerbic). The film also can boast Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross ("The Social Network") as one of three credited contributors to the film's original score. But what sets "Operation Varsity Blues" apart are its reenactments of wiretapped conversations. Take this exchange between Singer and his client Agustin Huneeus, ex-CEO of a Napa winery:

Huneeus: Is Bill McGlashan doing any of this s**t? Is he just talking a clean game with me and helping his kid, or not? 'Cause he makes me feel guilty.

Singer: Um ...

Huneeus: Or are you taking care of him in a way that he doesn't know because you have other interests with him?

Singer: No. No, not at all. It has nothing to do with his ...

Huneeus: But he didn't know. His kid had no idea. And he didn't have any idea that you helped him on the ACT.

Singer: 'Cause that's what he asked for.

Huneeus: Bill McGlashan.

Singer. Asked for his son not knowing.

Huneeus: Okay.

Singer: All right. So he's not been as forthcoming.

Huneeus: With me.

Singer: With you and his own kid. He wants it that way.

Using montages of social media college-acceptance (and non-acceptance) videos as Exhibit A, Smith contextualizes the elusive and, more importantly, illusory nature of college "prestige," built on low supply and high demand for top-ranked colleges. The manic expectations around the college application project mean big money for independent college counselors (a mix of advisor, coach, therapist, and Hollywood talent agent for high school juniors) and the test prep market. Not surprisingly, the highly desirable Stanford University plays a central role, with Smith indicting its practices even as he paints John Vandemoer, Stanford sailing team head coach, as something of a tragic figure, almost more a victim of Singer than a conspirator in a bribery scheme. To be fair, Vandemoer differed from other coaches and university administrators in taking money not directly for himself but instead for the Stanford sailing program (both Vandemoer and his lawyer, former federal prosecutor Robert Fisher, sit separately for interviews).

The Singer case got most of its attention because two of his clients were Hollywood actors: Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. Though neither takes up much screen time here, Loughlin takes more of a hit, with Smith highlighting her daughter Olivia Jade's academic failings and including a story of Loughlin's husband, Mossimo Giannulli, intimidating Olivia Jade's college counselor. That the barely mentioned Huffman escapes such attention probably owes more to her story being less gossipy in the details, but it's hard not to wonder if she was spared due to her own Hollywood "cool kid" status and broader influence within the industry, which would certainly be an irony of ironies.

The later passages of "Operation Varsity Blues" move on from the athletic recruitment scheme to elucidate a test cheating scheme, also cooked up by Singer. In the end, it's everyone but Singer who pays the most, as his cooperation with FBI investigators has allowed him, thus far, to remain free from prosecution. As Fisher puts it, "There aren't many federal cases where you have 50 people," most of them Singer's clients, "indicted for a crime." As Singer "flipped" on others, the nakedly corrupt colleges and universities took their complicity in stride (denying any conscious wrongdoing, Stanford redistributed Singer's $770,000 in donations "following recommendations from an outside philanthropic group"). And so money will keep doing the talking, albeit on the hush hush until the next scandal breaks.

— Peter Canavese

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