Friday, April 2, 2021


Through the lens of the recent massive college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues tracks the current state of American meritocracy in our new Gilded Age of staggering inequality. On the one hand, the rich are powerful, able to buy their way into any school through bribes and trickery. On the other hand, sometimes that placement was, until the FBI investigation and subsequent criminal charges, made possible by a self-made con man who rose from nowhere in particular to market his college counselor business into this perfect confluence of foundations, networking, and fraud. After all, is there anything as quintessentially American Dream as a con? We’re a country that valorizes getting ahead by any means necessary, and admires, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes shamelessly, getting one over on the suckers—pulling yourself up by anyone’s bootstraps. Here we watch Rick Singer, a former high school basketball coach, remaking himself as a college admissions guru, finding himself at the right place at the right time to market a hush-hush elites-only “side-door” into prestigious schools. It’s a business whose clients — CEOs, showbiz types, designers, real estate tycoons, hedge fund guys, the Hot Pockets heiress  — don’t mind making fake claims, tricking standardized tests, and fudging facts for a guaranteed placement in the college of their choice.

Why do these people even want to send their kids to these schools? You’d be surprised to hear the words “getting an education” don’t really come up. For such an anti-intellectual age, it sure is strange that the elite cling to college, not as an opportunity to learn about the world, but as a status symbol. One kid slipped into USC can be seen on video griping about her classes and accommodations, and then expressing relief when she gets to go home. They don’t care if they actually learn. And why not? They’re already in a position of extreme privilege, ensconced from a need to interface with information. They, or, more accurately, their parents, just want the diploma, the feather in the cap, just one more way to prove their own sense of worth. It’s a box to check on the prestige list, a way to convince themselves their powerful positions bought by inherited wealth are just as good as what others have to work for—or a fig life falsehood to claim those who don’t luck into that status just didn’t work hard enough. There’s a remarkable blend of cold calculation and total moral confusion that spills out of the minds of these clients. One repeat customer admits: “The thing is my younger daughter is not like my older daughter. She’s not stupid.” But, she and clients like her, must think, why take a chance on your merit, when money is a guarantee?

The film is a good way to think through the ideas of which this scandal is chock full, placing the facts of the case — which some of us might have followed closely already; it was a juicy true crime tale, after all — in a logical and clinical documentary retelling. There are just-the-facts talking heads from experts and (some) participants cut with a clicking keys and glowing texts and sound waves and blinking cursor modern immediacy, and a minimalist, shimmering, propulsive score co-composed by Atticus Ross, putting it in line with the aural tone of other pulsing modern tech stories The Social Network and Blackhat. Director Chris Smith (American Movie) shoots it that way too, in sleek scope frames with a cold color palate of steel grey and ice blue. He’s also wrapped this True Crime doc structure around a reenactment that goes beyond the usual spice and makes it a substantial portion of the meal. He casts Matthew Modine as Singer and follows him through talky scenes copied straight from wire taps. It’s a deft blending, with Modine’s inhabitation of this particular man — always on the movie, all business talk, salesman patter, constant athletic wear selling a casually confident sense of hustle — enlivening the ideas inherent in his scheme. Other actors play the other sides of his conversations, and it works up to a fine sort of catharsis — a methodical Soderbergh build to a climactic snap — as the walls close in and the authorities ready their raids. There’s still room for someone else to do a juicier take on this story — a looser, funnier, more savage and gossipy recreation, perhaps — but this accumulation of documentary detail gets the righteous anger and broader implications.

Undoubtedly everyone involved in this scheme is worthy of some scorn; but it’s hard not to also look at this as an indictment of a system that commodifies the diploma instead of a desire to actually get an education. The schools are beleaguered — pawns in the culture wars, beholden to whims of wealthy donors and confused boards, viewed as a product more than a conduit for personal growth in knowledge and selfhood. It can be hard, even isolating, out there for those of us aligned with the idea that knowing, understanding, and thinking are virtues in and of themselves, with a core commitment to cultivating a sense of critical thinking and constant curiosity in ideas, ourselves, and others. That’s what a good school at any level and any program should get you: an opportunity to think and learn, to deepen and grow. When it’s just another cog in the machine — when school is reduced to a mere utility, as either status symbol of wealth management on the upper end or mere functional job training on the other — we lose the real liberating power of a well-rounded knowledge of the world, an ability to process information and sort out the deepest truths about ourselves and our society. We are currently paying for this lack. Smith’s film gives us the time to consider the state of education in this country by shining a light on one of its horrible corners of privilege and corruption, and lets the implications grow, implied or unspoken, from there.

No comments:

Post a Comment