Netflix’s ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ empathizes with scandalized figures

April 7, 2021, 8:43 p.m.

“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” extends sympathy towards former Stanford sailing coach, John Vandemoer, and the families involved in the 2019 scandal, ultimately portraying them as victims of the college admissions system and Rick Singer’s criminal operation. According to Netflix’s synopsis for the documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues,” released on March 17, was produced to provide a “glimpse into the enigmatic figure [Singer] behind a scheme that exposed the lengths wealthy families would go to for admission into elite colleges.”

The 2019 news outbreak on the college admissions scandal stirred anger throughout the U.S. This anger is expressed in the film through clips of college students and other news sources reacting to the scandal, and experts break it down in relation to college admission inequities. However, this hostile sentiment is balanced with a sincere attempt to understand why these families engaged in these schemes, attributing their behavior to situational factors. 

The film begins with the final phase of the college admissions process: checking the results. News clips of the college admissions scandal headlines juxtapose with the supposedly “organic and holistic” process of admitting students into colleges. The admissions process has become manufactured — something of a commodity to be gained or bought for brand and recognition — and Director Chris Smith’s cinematography reflects it as so. 

The film then transports viewers to 2018 Newport Beach, CA, where Singer is seen talking on the phone with one of his clients. Before any further conversation rolls, a message informs viewers that all conversations in the film are live recreations of the wiretap transcripts released by the U.S. government. Experts walk viewers through the conversations, describing Singer’s use of loopholes in the admissions process to help families gain spots in top universities. They explain the athletic recruitment and exam cheating schemes, and the cover-up of bribes as “donations.” According to their analysis, Singer is the “deceptive mastermind behind the entire operation” who was able to profit from relieving families’ concerns over college admissions through illegal means. 

Suspenseful, dark sounds are played throughout the film, especially during scenes recreating Singer’s and his clients’ movements and conversations, creating a tense and suspenseful atmosphere around the wealthy families who were caught. Many of the guilty parents recognized the illegality of their actions but chose to deny, ignore or revise their ulterior motives into realities they could cope with. Their psychological acrobatics allowed them to proceed with their desired goal of prestigious college acceptances for their children. 

Gradually, the score intensifies and echoes these parents’ simultaneous feelings of guilt and desperation for going so far to reach the desired goal of prestigious bragging rights that comes with acceptance to a top school. With the buildup of intense sounds foreshadowing the eventual discovery of the illegal plan and its consequences, it is disappointing to witness the parents’ actions. It seems obvious that the families should have known not to engage in these schemes. No lyrics are included in any of the background music because the recreated scenes coupled with sounds imitating viewers’ reactions at the suspicious, dark situation are enough to portray disapproving sentiments about the whole ordeal. 

The recreation of these scenes helps the viewer visualize how huge Singer’s operation was — extending from all over the country, even internationally — with actors bringing these secluded conversations into a very visible format. The shots provide glimpses of the families’ lavished, comfortable lifestyles and monetized interactions with Singer. The recreated scenes assist in making the documentary easier to digest and understand, providing viewers the opportunity to react as a witness to Singer’s schemes with disappointment, anger and frustration. 

Similarly to the families who succumbed to the pressure of college admissions, John Vandemoer, former Stanford sailing coach, receives screen time to share his own story behind his involvement with the college admissions scandal. Vandemoer states that he took the bribes as actual donations and was unaware of Singer’s ill intentions. The film emphasizes that Vandemoer was the only coach who did not take money for himself and instead put it towards the Stanford sailing program. It also provides a small glimpse into how Vandemoer weathered the backlash he received after the scandal broke, portraying him as vulnerable and encouraging the audience to sympathize with him. Most of Vandemoer’s claims and narrative cannot be fully verified, building uncertainty around Vandemoer’s “innocence.” 

The lengths that this operation went to are incredible yet unsurprising. With a look inside the loopholes and unequal playing field of college admissions, “Operation Varsity Blues” reflects on the bounty on prestigious university acceptances and the increasing commodification of higher education to reap financial, social and cultural capital in order to build and maintain prestige. 

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