‘Operation Varsity Blues’ Review: Failing the Ethics Test

Pop quiz: Name the mastermind behind the 2019 college bribery conspiracy that sent the actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin to prison. Answer: William Singer (also known as Rick), the serial fabulist who guaranteed he could get any kid into an elite school for a price — or rather, a “donation” — only to become an F.B.I. informant and cede the media glare to Loughlin, the former star of “Full House.”

The gripping documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” (streaming on Netflix) shifts the spotlight back to Singer, played in re-enactments by Matthew Modine with dialogue taken directly from wiretaps, to understand how a flip flop-clad former basketball coach rebranded himself as an academic glad-hander for the 1 percent.

The director Chris Smith (“American Movie,” “Fyre”) specializes in ambitious monomaniacs. That describes Singer, who slept three hours a night, often on an airplane or in a van. That also describes the families Singer served, alpha tycoons and go-getters seen pacing anxiously in front of swimming pools, who believed their child’s life was kaput without a slot at a top university. Their phone conversations with Modine’s Singer snap with the blunt force of powerful people used to getting what they want. Cracks one father, “Is there a two-for-one special for twins?”

Since neither Singer nor his clients agreed to be interviewed, Smith subs in college counselors to expound on the toxicity of an application process that upholds privilege in ways both straightforward (private test tutors), subtle (athletic admissions for upper-class sports like sailing or water polo), and suspicious (say, Charles Kushner’s $2.5 million donation to Harvard shortly before his son Jared’s acceptance). Singer merely exploited loopholes that continue to exist.

As for the less-privileged students, they’re shown in a montage of home videos sobbing to learn they’ve been rejected by the school of their dreams. A few, however, earn a space despite the odds — and the pride on their faces can’t be bought for any price.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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