Review: Admissions scandal probed in flawed 'Operation Varsity Blues'

Matthew Modine stars as man at center of college admissions debacle in Netflix's imperfect (but still quite engrossing) look at the scam's roots

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Recreations are the enemy of any serious documentary. And they chip away at what is otherwise an informed, enthralling and enraging piece of work in "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal." 

Director Chris Smith ("Fyre," "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond") tackles the 2019 scandal that sent "Full House's" Lori Loughlin to jail (albeit briefly) with a clear grasp of the facts, their implications and how it relates to society today. And he lays them out in a simple, easy-to-follow manner, even if his execution is mucked up by recreations that resemble a Lifetime Original movie. (In fact there was a Lifetime movie on the topic, "The College Admissions Scandal," that aired in 2019.) 

Matthew Modine in "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal."

Operation Varsity Blues was the name given to the pay-for-play scheme run by Rick Singer, who charged wealthy parents exorbitant sums of cash to get their kids into exclusive colleges via "side doors." His side door programs usually involved athletic scholarships for sports the students didn't play, and were rolled into donations for the schools' athletic programs and handshake deals.

Big picture, the scandal showed how far parents were willing to go to get their kids into good schools. Bigger picture, it showed the pressure placed on students (and their parents) to get into these schools, exacerbated by social media; the scam of the admissions process for top universities; and the ways that the rich simply play by a different set of rules than everyone else. 

It's all fascinating stuff, perfect material for a documentary to dive deep into. And "Operation Varsity Blues" does dive in, but it's broken up by scenes of Matthew Modine playing Singer that look and feel like a cheap TV movie. Modine is mostly reciting dialogue from actual taped phone calls that Singer made, so the conversations paint a picture of how his interactions with clients — i.e. wealthy parents — were framed. But when the truth is this good, fiction is unnecessary. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for some language

Running time: 99 minutes

On Netflix