If you knew Rick Singer prior to 2019, chances are good that you worked for a prestigious university or were a very, very wealthy parent. The tall man with the gray Frankenstein’s-monster haircut ran a consulting and college-counseling business called “The Key”; having been an actual high school basketball coach in Sacramento, California, he still dressed the part when he’d visit prospective Ivy Leaguers, all the better to radiate tough-love authority. For a fee, he’d help prep kids to get an into the best universities, the Stanfords and Yales and other higher-learning institutions that open doors into America’s upper class. (Sorry, we forgot that there’s no class system in the U.S.A. Wink, wink.)
What Singer was really selling was something a little dodgier. Here’s how he put it: There’s the “front door” method of getting into a high-ranking college, via grades and hard work and merit. There’s the “back door” way, in which rich moms and dads make a sizable donation to a university. It doesn’t guarantee admission, but it does put a student on the admission board’s radar. Singer, however, specialized in a “side door” option, in which parents made an extremely large donation to the foundation arm of his business, which he then used to bribe coaches, athletic recruiters and university administrators. You want your daughter to go to USC? Thanks to his connections and your seven- or eight-figure check, Singer could secure her a spot on the rowing team. And if she’s never rowed a day in her life? Who cares! Congratulations, she’s now a Trojan!
Chris Smith’s Operation Varsity Blues, the new documentary now streaming on Netflix about Singer’s scam and high-profile bust — its title borrows the codename for the FBI’s investigation into his criminal activities; who knew the Feds were such cinephiles? — lays all of this out for you, piece by piece and moral indignity by moral indignity. How he manages to do this is what may end up sticking in your craw a bit. As with Fyre, Smith’s devastating 2019 autopsy of the Fyre Festival, this portrait of a scandal is blessed with first-hand access to what happened, in the form of government wiretaps. Unlike the treasure trove of crowd-sourced documentation regarding the doomed music fest, however, the filmmaker didn’t have a visual component to go along with those caught-on-tape conversations. Surprisingly, no one was capturing their own highly illegal, career-ending transactions on video for posterity.
So Smith cast Matthew Modine as Singer, along with a host of where-do-I-know-that-person-from character actors to play his high-profile clientele, and recreated all of the double-dealings in tony mansions, hotel lounges, and campus offices. Occasionally, we cut to an FBI agent (played by Jillian Peterson) sitting in her office, listening in while staring at her computer monitor; she’s the closest thing to a regular costar that Modine gets. Thankfully, no one is forced to go the Drunk History route and lip-sync to the actual wiretap audio, but every bit of their dialogue they speak is, we’re informed, taken from the real transcripts.
The creative workaround does drop you into the middle of the shady-as-hell action in a way that, say, recordings playing over a close-up of a grainy photo does not. But it also starts to become more than a little distracting, and you find yourself tuning into the performances instead of the particulars of the case. And given that all of Singer’s non-celebrity clientele — investment bankers, bond managers, prominent attorneys, venture capitalists — start to blend together after a while, the numerous scenes of Singer on the phone telling people, “We’ll Photoshop his faces on a water polo player, I can fix the ACT results, I know the recruiting coach for coxswains, it’s a done deal” simply become one near-indistinguishable blur of rich people behaving badly.
Look, we’re no purists. Ever since Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line used reconstructed a crime and re-examine an injustice with actors, the ability to use recreations of events has been one more arrow in a documentarian’s quiver. Here, they keep the narrative moving yet somehow flatlines it at the same time. Modine, it should be said, manages to give you Singer’s constant forward momentum, and the sense of a man who never stops working or moving long enough to let a sense of morality seep into his thought process. (Everyone mentions how rough yet charismatic the consultant could be, which the Full Metal Jacket star occasionally gives you glimpses of as well. His Singer is a blunt-force charmer.) But the longer you watch these sequences, the more Operation Varsity Blues feels like it’s on the verge of devolving into a longform America’s Most Wanted episode of this story at any moment.
Which is too bad, given how much good stuff is in here: the clips of social influencer Olivia Jade talking about how she could care less about a good education even though she’s blessed to have one; the talking-head testimonials, especially The New Yorker‘s Naomi Fry blow-by-blow accounts; how Smith occasionally uses the vocabulary of conspiracy thrillers to good effect, whether it’s slow-zoom into Singer on the phone or a low-angle shot of a Fed eavesdropping on a deal; the eerie score, which you will not be surprised to discover was produced by Atticus Ross. Smith has always been an expert at tuning in to human behavior, as his breakthrough doc American Movie proved way back when, and you can hear him drawing out answers from participants and letting stories from a woman who nearly dated Singer — which initially seem peripheral, until they don’t — play out in the name of giving you that much more insight into the enigmatic man behind all of this.
He also knows when to drop footage of teenagers screaming with joy or sobbing in agony over college acceptance letters to remind you of the stakes behind getting into an Ivy League college or not. But he also uses those montages to underline a few other pertinent points. A good education can be procured anywhere if you want, someone points out. And Singer, another person points out, played off the “pressure points” of parents not feeling like they were giving their kids everything they could. Yet these are same parents that gave their children every single advantage that modern economic aristocrats view as their god-given rights. The youngsters had all the privileges, the entitlements of wealth, the access to the crème de la crème of prep help — and their folks still cheated to get them into their dream school. Win the game or rig it, it’s all the same. The rules of normal behavior do not apply to the wealthy and powerful … until, of course, they do. You don’t need a Harvard degree to know that’s a priceless lesson to learn.