Arts & Entertainment, Reviews

Cinephilia: Netflix’s ‘Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal’ is insightful but misses the mark

When some 50 individuals were found guilty of criminal conspiracy after bribing college admissions and athletic staff in March 2019, the nation stood still. How was it that, between 2011 and 2018, millions of dollars flowed into universities across the nation without anyone catching on?

Netflix’s newest documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” answers that question. Directed by Chris Smith, the man behind Netflix’s 2019 “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” and last spring’s “Tiger King,” “Operation Varsity Blues” is more of a proper docudrama, with plentiful emphasis on drama.

Exposé documentaries, or investigative documentaries, aim to bring something popular or unknown to light. Examples of such films are “Taxi to the Dark Side” or “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief,” but “Operation Varsity Blues” takes this concept — exposing and unraveling the college admissions scandal — to a dramatic extreme.

operation varsity blues: the college admissions scandal on netflix
Netflix’s “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” documentary is enlightening, but puts too much emphasis on dramatization. ILLUSTRATION BY HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

With acted dramatizations of recorded conversations and interactions, it makes sense for the documentary to visually display how exactly Rick Singer, the ringleader of the conspiracy, went about bribing college officials. Interspersed with real-time interviews with independent education consultants, former university admission officers and some of Signer’s former clients themselves, “Operation Varsity Blues” thoroughly investigates its topic and enlightens its audience.

But all good things come to an end.

“Operation Varsity Blues” places too much drama over substance, something that truly hurts a film meant to educate an audience. Dramatizations anchor the film, with voice-over interviews offering explanatory narration and subtle context clues. The constant scenes of Signer babbling over a phone about fun times and a test prep scholar detailing the process of how tests work become droning. This isn’t to say that such aspects are unnecessary, given they do add something to the film, but they in no way provide the strength needed to further the plot.

Actually, a plot is something that is missing from the film entirely. While documentaries typically don’t require a certain type of narrative, a documentary film should still follow some sort of agenda to detail the subject at hand. “Operation Varsity Blues” follows a rather simple agenda, discussing test prep, ways to get around the admission board and dramatizing phone calls until Singer is suddenly interrogated by the FBI and becomes an informant. Things happen too quickly, things happen in flashes, but better yet, they are just that: things.

The extended reenactments, lengthy interviews and blatant jokes have no reasoning behind them except entertainment. Of course, a film should entertain its audience. That is why many of us watch films in general. But to favor entertainment value over the true investigation is troublesome and rather lazy.

I shouldn’t bash the film in its entirety. I truly acknowledge that it is quite enlightening and inspiring for the most part — much thanks to its upbeat music and powerful use of pre-recorded footage — but the film could have been much more than just entertainment. At its heart, it had the makings of a proper, grand documentary, but ended up serving as a tabloid and unworthy of such a title.

A rather interesting and nevertheless important film, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” makes waves that aren’t big enough to get out of the shallow end.

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