NEW YORK – In recent years, documentarians have increasingly relied on dramatic reenactments to breathe life into an old, and occasionally staid, genre. Such scenes rarely feature dialogue or notable actors. Instead, they're generally pantomimed.
'Operation Varsity Blues,' streaming Netflix, revisits notorious college discovery
"Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal," by contrast, offers extended exchanges of dialogue. The film, streaming now on Netflix, also features veteran actor Matthew Modine as Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the notorious scam it explores.
Despite these innovative features, the program's hybrid nature – part documentary, part dramatization – and its failure to provide more than a superficial analysis undermine its impact. Still, as written by Jon Karmen and directed by Chris Smith, the show does offer some valuable commentary on an affair that stirred widespread outrage when it came to light in 2019.
A prologue depicts the fervid atmosphere engendered by the revelation of Singer's scheme. Between 2011 and 2018, an FBI investigation found, more than 50 affluent Americans, some of them prominent public figures, paid Singer an estimated $25 million to get their children into prestigious universities.
Former Stanford University admissions officer Jon Reider helps to establish the background to these events. Increasingly, he observes, admission to college has become "a commodity." Thus being accepted into a highly regarded seat of learning is now, in the words of education consultant Barbara Kalmus, a "status point" that carries "bragging rights."
A video montage of ecstatic high school seniors reacting to the news that they've gotten into their "dream" schools reinforces the point.
According to the film's depiction of him, Singer was a high school basketball coach whose career was hobbled by his volatile temperament. So he transformed himself into an admissions consultant.
Preying on the vanity of his well-to-do clients, he also offered them something of a bargain. Getting a son or daughter into Harvard through one of what Singer called his "side doors," for instance, might cost them $1.5 million. But achieving the same result through a gift to Harvard might require $45 million.
The show includes some rough and crude language as well as a flash of partial rear nudity. Unsuitable for kids, who are unlikely to find it of much interest anyway, parents may consider the program acceptable for older teens, especially given the relevance of its subject matter to college-bound high schoolers.
The presence of Modine – who, at 62, has been on screen for nearly 40 years – adds stature to "Operation Varsity Blues" and will likely increase its audience. He successfully captures his California-bred character's laid-back style.
As Alexandra Biering, one of Singer's former clients, recalls, the consultant "always dressed like he had just come from the basketball court." Modine's insightful performance captures the fact, however, that this apparent insouciance masked Singer's deep-seated conviction that he had the means to beat the system.
Even the best actors can only do so much with reenactments, though, because they inevitably feel stilted. As a result, viewers may come away from "Operation Varsity Blues" wondering what Modine might have been able to accomplish playing the same role in a fictionalized version of Singer's story.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.