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'Operation Varsity Blues' review: Intriguing approach to covering the admissions scandal

Angela Nicholas as Donna Heinel and Matthew Modine

Angela Nicholas as Donna Heinel and Matthew Modine as William 'Rick' Singer in "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal." Credit: Netflix

DOCUMENTARY "Operation Varsity Blues"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The veteran documentarian Chris Smith, fresh off producing the early-pandemic sensation "Tiger King," has set his sights on another tabloid favorite.

"Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal" tells the story of the college admissions bribery scheme busted by the feds in 2019, in which dozens of wealthy parents from coast to coast, including most famously the actresses Felicity Huffman and Hauppauge-raised Lori Loughlin, paid a man named Rick Singer exorbitant sums to buy their children into elite universities through a "side door."

This documentary, streaming on Netflix, endeavors to unpack the elaborate web spun by Singer, revealing how the scam worked, the scope of the alleged involvement among parents, administrators, coaches and more, as well as the larger questions it raises about the broken admissions process and warped priorities therein.

Smith, whose credits as a director also include the Netflix "Fyre" documentary, fleshes out the re-enactments here far more extensively than in most nonfiction cinema, to the point of casting Matthew Modine as Singer and giving him dialogue that consists of real wiretapped conversations.

MY SAY "Operation Varsity Blues" arrives on the streaming service almost exactly two years after news of this scandal first broke, and nearly a year-and-a-half after Lifetime won the race to make a movie about it ( "The College Admissions Scandal") in Oct. 2019.

The fact that the story still resonates as much as it does shows the extent to which it speaks to a profoundly broken system, both in terms of the accessibility of schools at the top of the annual rankings and the extent to which a degree from them has become a status symbol.

This isn't merely the story of rich people behaving badly and getting their comeuppance, but a classically American tale that unfolds across rich dramatic terrain. Smith's movie occasionally taps into that potential. But it still feels like the definitive picture on the subject hasn't been made.

This one wants to be so many things in its hybrid of stylistic approaches that it distracts too often from the essentials.

The re-enactments exemplify the problem. Modine has had an enduring Hollywood career for a reason — he's always very good, even in lesser fare. But there's only so much this hardy veteran can do with the limitations imposed by a character who stands as a total cipher, with dialogue that sticks to the historical record and does not allow for any sort of conjecture in the search for emotional truth.

He's left with little to work with in terms of details beyond putting on an uncomfortably rigid posture in what amounts to a series of B-roll shots interspersed with conversations that might have landed more had we heard the real Singer's voice.

The contours of the scandal are explained by talking heads and buttressed with real footage of, say, the YouTube videos made by Loughlin's daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, but they don't offer much to enhance our understanding of this widely covered story.

Smith doesn't land many noteworthy interviews, but one amounts to a major coup: a candid conversation, in stark close-ups, with the Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who got no prison time after pleading guilty to a count of racketeering conspiracy.

He offers his side of the story, alleging Singer scammed him as much as anyone else, with the sort of emotional weight and fervent conviction that is missing from the rest of this movie. The human cost of it all is laid bare in these scenes, when all the bells and whistles are stripped away.

BOTTOM LINE "Operation Varsity Blues" takes an intriguing approach to telling the story of the 2019 college admissions scandal, but it only rarely offers revelations that have a real impact.

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