OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL -- A Captivating Entry into the Netflix True Crime Doc Genre
Review by Sean Boelman
Netflix has created for themselves a brand of true crime documentaries that is flashy but entertaining, taking stranger-than-fiction stories and turning them into nail-biting entertainment. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is the latest in that tradition, offering a not-too-nuanced look at these events but a great opportunity to revel in the occasional misfortune of the rich.
The film tells the story of the mastermind behind a scam designed to help get rich and famous kids into top universities even though they haven’t earned their way. It’s a story that got lots of headlines a few years ago because of some of the high-profile people it involved (such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin), but Chris Smith’s documentary does a good job of showing how much more complex this web is than was initially thought.
Choosing to tell the story from the perspective of the mastermind was an interesting decision on the part of the filmmakers. Its basis in wire-tapped phone calls creates an intriguing unbelievable but true situation, but this comes at the expense of a genuine emotional connection to any of the victims of this scheme.
Occasionally, the movie utilizes footage of enthusiastic students being disappointed when they aren’t accepted into their university of choice, but other than that, the film hardly addresses the perspective of these events’ true victims. And while there is an interesting interview with a rowing coach who was an unwitting pawn in the ordeal, this whole thing leans heavily towards the side of the perpetrator.
Reenactments in documentaries are often used as a crutch, but here, Smith uses them as the bulk of his storytelling. After a certain point, it becomes easier to think of this merely as a work of nonfiction rather than a traditional interview-based documentary. These sequences are quite well-done, driven by a strong performance by Matthew Modine.
Smith’s movie has a very high level of production value to it, with great cinematography, fast editing, and pretty much any gimmick one could dream of at his disposal. It’s easy to see past all of this garishness to find the flaws and leanings in its argumentation, but it is even easier to get wrapped up in its cinematic ways.
At an hour and forty minutes, the film manages to cover the scandal in a way that feels mostly comprehensive. Of course, the movie does pull some punches when it comes to some of the more famous perpetrators of these crimes, but viewers will finish the film feeling like they know more about this situation than they did before.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is exactly what one expects from the new Netflix true crime doc, but it satisfies that specific itch. This will definitely be the next big thing to light the internet abuzz.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal hits Netflix on March 17.