In criminal cases, wiretapped phone conversations are commanding pieces of evidence (juries love them), and in documentaries about crime they tend to be some of the most gripping. We hear people as they really are. In “Allen v. Farrow,” the tapes of Woody Allen in phone conversations secretly recorded by Mia Farrow present an oily power side of him that has never been heard as openly. And in the bracing documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” we hear the high drama of wealthy parents on the phone with Rick Singer, the independent college counselor who orchestrated the massive scam that rocked the world of elite college admissions. It sent Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin to jail — but that scurrilous saga of fallen celebrity was, in this case, just the tabloid tip of the iceberg.
“Operation Varsity Blues” presents the whole iceberg, in an innovative and compelling way. The movie was directed by Chris Smith, who has made documentaries about a wide range of subjects, from Jim Carrey (“Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond”) to the specter of global financial meltdown (“Collapse”) to the implosion of an infamous luxury music festival (“Fyre”). He has virtually never directed a conventional, just-the-facts-ma’am documentary, and though “Operation Varsity Blues” has all the facts, and lays them out with galvanizing clarity and precision, the innovative move Smith makes is to take FBI transcripts of wiretapped conversations and play them out, in real settings, with actors portraying the relevant people.
Matthew Modine, with ruddy skin and a helmet of thatchy gray hair cut into a monk’s severe bangs, plays Singer, the methodical, hatchet-faced manipulator at the center of the scandal. About three-fifths of the movie is a straightforward documentary, with talking-head witnesses who knew Singer from his hometown of Sacramento, and we get a sense of the kind of man he was: dour, furtive, workaholic, with a sodden earnest surface that made him seem the furthest possible thing from a con artist. He looks like a joyless Richard Belzer, but at the time even that look was part of his mystique. A former client recalls, “He always dressed like he had just come from the basketball court. His idea was that what he was doing was coaching kids for getting into college, so therefore he dressed like a coach.”
In the staged sections with Modine, it feels, at first, like we’re watching a TV-movie. The difference is: Everything out of Singer’s mouth is stuff he actually said, word for word. And so we get a close-up view of how the events unfolded, and of how the wealthy parents who were drawn into Singer’s web contributed, knowingly, to the spinning of the web. They were co-conspirators in a hugely successful racket: the bribing of college athletic coaches and university administrators, all to guarantee admission.
As Singer saw it, there were three ways to get into a college like Stanford or Yale or Georgetown: through the “front door,” which means that you make it on your own merits; through the “back door,” which means that your parents make a donation of such magnitude (meaning tens of millions) that the college rolls out the red carpet; and the option that became the Singer specialty — the “side door,” which was based on parents ponying up sums in the range of $500,000 to $1 million (they would donate the money to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation, so that it could be laundered as a charitable contribution), which then got passed on as bribes to sources within the college.
But the money wasn’t enough. Singer figured out how to pass off the student applicants as athletes, usually in classy niche sports like Crew, fencing, and horseback riding, because those sports were more under the radar. He would photoshop images of them playing water polo (or, in the case of Lori Loughlin’s two daughters, take photographs of them on rowing machines), all to suggest to the admissions board that the students were athletes the colleges should covet. When the students arrived at the school, the fact that they never spent one minute on those teams would just get buried. Singer also paid off proctors to fake the results of SAT tests. Part of the scam there, intriguingly, was the lengths to which he had to go to conceal the deception from the students who were taking the tests. In almost every case, the parents weren’t just bribing the colleges — they were scamming their own kids.
The nuts and bolts of how Singer’s operation worked are clever and shameless, and the movie explains it all fairly quickly. The complicity of the parents, who in the re-enacted phone conversations are often visibly anxious about whether they’re going to be found out (they have no idea their heads are on the chopping block as they speak), is the case’s juiciest true-crime element.
Yet what makes “Operation Varsity Blues” a movie of great value, one that does more than just color in the story behind the headlines, is that it presents a searing and searching indictment of the commodification of college: the way our elite institutions of higher learning are now selling prestige to an increasingly hermetic club of vulgarly powerful American aristocrats. There are 3,000 colleges in the United States, and many of them are good, but the reason that more and more people will do anything to get into those 25 or 50 top-tier schools is because of their feeling that the system — the whole culture — is rigged. To gain access to an elite college is to purchase an aura, one that in theory never stops giving dividends. It’s become aspirational in the way certain reality TV shows are. And the fact that so many feel they need that aura, or life will shut them out, is a sign that the society has increasingly been designed to squash all but a select few. As “Operation Varsity Blues” presents it, that’s the larger scam.