Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (4 stars)

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

Insightful and entertaining look at the scandal which saw wealthy US parents buying college places for their kids

The director of Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, Chris Smith, turns his attention to another story of the shameful and disastrous exploits of the better off. This time, he's digging deep into the FBI investigation that was codenamed Operation Varsity Blues, which found rich and sometimes famous parents purchasing places at Ivy League institutions for their often-oblivious offspring, arranged by independent college counsellor Rick Singer.

Alongside laying out the path of the investigation and Singer's tactics for persuading people (including actress Felicity Huffman) to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars, the film contextualises things just enough by painting a picture of a higher education system that's rotten to its core, and easily gamed by the wealthy, who it is already set up to favour, with where you go to university as much about the associated prestige and bragging rights as it is about learning. The scam itself is brought to life by re-enactments of real conversations, which were immortalised in wire-tap transcripts, with actor Matthew Modine bringing a touch of class to the project as Singer, who he is made up to closely resemble.

As it rattles through the commodification of the US college system, how it was exploited, and the many unusual features of the case, the documentary is fast-paced and insightful; there's almost too much information to take in, yet a range of voices keep things succinct and interesting. There's testimony from the expected legal experts and writers, most usefully Daniel Golden the author of The Price of Admission, but also from Patricia Logan, a business associate of Singer's who once dated him, and even one of Singer's conspirators, the former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer who, although eventually pleading guilty to accepting bribes, never personally profited from the scheme and maintains his naivety here.

The film sports less of a sense of schadenfreude than there was in Fyre – not least as some people have yet to be punished, but also because what's being manipulated are young people's futures. Despite that, Operation Varsity Blues is telling one hell of a juicy story that has already somewhat played out in the press, and very recently too. This needed to fill in the blanks whilst keeping things staunchly entertaining. It's a balance Smith has struck very well.

Available to watch on Netflix from Wed 17 Mar.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 1h 39min
  • Directed by: Chris Smith
  • Written by: Jon Karmen
  • Cast: Matthew Modine, Sarah Chaney, Leroy Edwards III
  • UK release: 17 March 2021

A documentary investigating the US college admissions scandal.