Review: “Operation Varsity Blues” (Netflix)

Netflix recently released a new documentary film about the college admissions scandal called Operation Varsity Blues: Inside the College Admissions Scandal. The film covers the actions of Rick Springer, who was if not the mastermind certainly the ringleader of the entire scandal that included celebrities such as Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman.

The Premise

Operation Varsity Blues is a documentary featuring commentary with real people involved in the scandal and analysis thereof. It also features dramatic recreations of some events, with Matthew Modine (pictured below from Full Metal Jacket) playing the role of Rick Springer. Commentary provided by analysts explains exactly how Springer was able to secure spots at prestigious colleges for otherwise undeserving students. He used many strategies, including the upstanding “front door” method of just applying to the school and the we-all-knew-it-was-happening-but-it’s-still-slimy “back door” way of making a huge donation to the school. But his real gem was what he called the “side door.”

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The side door involved having a student get accepted as a possible walk-on to a niche sports program such as sailing, water polo, or tennis. Basically he would submit applications with falsified sports records to corrupt coaches, who would lobby the admissions people to allow that kid into a school based on their alleged athletic prowess. The student gets in, never goes to practice, but they’re already admitted to the school so it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile donations are made to the school, the athletic program, or the coach personally as a “thank you” that happens to be a bribe.

What’s really interesting is what Springer would do to improve a candidate’s grades if the athletic-based side door wasn’t going to be available. He would have someone take that student’s standardized tests for them. Well, kind of. First he would encourage parents to have their kids diagnosed with some vague learning disability that would allow them to get extended time to take the tests. After the student received such a diagnosis, he would arrange for them to take the SAT or ACT alone except for a specifically chosen proctor. The student would take the exam, but after they turned in their answer sheet, the proctor would go back and take the exam themselves. Because the proctor was a test prep professional, he could get a near perfect score at will.

Operation Varsity Blues: Where Is John Vandemoer, Former Stanford Sailing  Coach, Now?

Of course, Springer was eventually caught, and to avoid prison he wore a wire and captured many of his clients on the phone completely admitting to bribing school officials or otherwise getting their kids into college through unscrupulous means. The most compelling part of the movie is the story of former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer (pictured, right). Vandemoer seems to be one of the few people caught up in the scandal who actually is innocent. The film portrays him as someone who was taken advantage of by the likes of Rick Springer and even the Stanford Athletic Department. As the film closes, text on the screen describes the fate of some of the people involved, but this is clearly a story that will continue for some time because Rick Springer is, as of this writing, a free man.

The Review

Overall this was a good documentary film. I’m not normally one who enjoys dramatic recreations, but in Operation Varsity Blues the recreations were done in a way that did not seem hokey or cheesy like you would expect in a Lifetime movie. And most of the dialogue was taken from actual wiretap recordings. But that word “most” is the key. The film contains a disclaimer that some lines were reimagined for succinctness and/or dramatic effect. That’s not exactly as bad as the “based on a true story” disclaimer, but it still makes me question how much of what was portrayed actually happened.

The commentary from analysts and others was great, though. For one thing, John Vandemoer himself provided interviews, as did his criminal defense attorney. Daniel Golden, an author who published the book The Price of Admission about this scandal, was also interviewed, and his commentary was fantastic. I actually ordered the book and I will read it after I read the next five or so books in my personal queue.

The Conclusion

So now we get to the part where I’m supposed to assign a number to this show. I’m conflicted because on one hand it was very well done, but on the other I’m very scared of the disclaimer about altering dialogue for which they had actual recordings. Ultimately, however, I think the disclaimer is a ding on the score but nothing else. The whole documentary was informative and did a great job of explaining exactly what was going on such that anyone could understand why the coaches of random sports like sailing were getting in trouble for this. The craziest part of the whole thing is how brazen it was. There wasn’t even a ton of brainwork in figuring out how to sneak past authorities; it was just good, old fashioned bribery. On many levels it’s insane that people can still get away with it for as long as Rick Springer did.

So now the number. I give Operation Varsity Blues a 7.3. It was good, and I think having it as one movie rather than a docuseries was good because I’m not sure they could have stretched this into six or eight episodes without the live testimony of more central figures. Where it loses points is on the disclaimer and the lack of interviews with people like the corrupt test proctor, the parents involved, school officials, or even some of the kids. The kids were, by and large, innocent “victims” who also happened to benefit from the whole thing, and their point of view would be fascinating. That said, if their parents are currently under indictment, it’s no wonder that they didn’t provide any commentary.

Here’s how that stacks up in our reviews:

Breaking Bad9.7
The Wire9.6
Seinfeld9.0
Downton Abbey8.8
Last Chance U: Basketball8.5
The Office (US): 8.4
The Queen’s Gambit8.2
Scrubs8.0 (which would be higher but that last season was so bad)
Parks and Recreation7.8
Operation Varsity Blues: 7.3
The Newsroom7.0
John Adams6.8
Tiger6.5
Firefly Lane5.5
Last Man Standing5.0
Weeds4.5
How I Met Your Mother4.0
Two and a Half Men2.5
The Big Bang Theory0.3

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