What You Won’t Learn About the College Admissions Scandal in Netflix’s New Film

‘Operation Varsity Blues’ examines the multimillion-dollar bribery affair that sent Felicity Huffman and others to prison, plus read reviews of ‘‘Til Kingdom Come’ and ‘Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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William "Rick" Singer, right, and Matthew Modine as the college fixer in the Netflix documentary "Operation Varsity Blues."
William "Rick" Singer, right, and Matthew Modine as the college fixer in the Netflix documentary "Operation Varsity Blues." Credit: Netflix
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Are Netflix’s algorithms antisemitic? I only ask because after watching the new documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” the streaming service suggested I view “Shtisel” next.

Now, my usual feeling when being presented with the viewing option at the end of a show is annoyance as I want to watch the end credits. But this was a genuine “WTF?” moment: What on earth is the connection between a film about crimes committed by the rich and – in some cases – famous, and an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem?

Why “Shtisel” and not, say, a more obvious choice like director Chris Smith’s previous film for Netflix, “Fyre,” about the infamous tropical-island music festival that never happened?

I’ll regard this as a weird one-off, but feel free to drop me a line if you’ve had similarly incongruous recommendations that made you question what Netflix’s algorithms are really thinking.

Anyway, enough about what happened afterward and on to the film itself. The college admissions scandal was all over the American media in 2019, thanks to it featuring the ultimate feel-good subject: rich folks getting their comeuppance.

Much like “Fyre” before it, this is a tale about wealthy people preoccupied with prestige and believing that money can buy anything. Yet as one of the interviewees points out, the etymology of the word “prestige” comes from the French for conjuror’s trick or illusion.

And that’s exactly what William “Rick” Singer, the criminal at the heart of this scandal, employed as he helped hundreds of parents get their kids into the best U.S. universities via what he dubbed the “side door” – substantial bribes paid to sports coaches and college administrators to let rich kids in through tracks they had no right to be on: for example, a boy who could barely swim on a water polo program.

Singer received approximately $25 million from parents between 2011 and 2018 for his various racketeering schemes – which also included hiring someone to sit kids’ ACTs or SATs for the princely sum of $75,000 – and is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to his crimes. At the behest of the FBI, and in a shameless bid to reduce his jail time, he also ensnared many of his former clients.

“Operation Varsity Blues,” which takes its name from the FBI investigation, recounts the story via a series of reenactments based on the bureau’s extensive wiretaps of Singer’s calls with his clients. And as one lawyer accurately puts it: “Historically, white-collar defendants have almost no filter on the phone.”

Felicity Huffman exiting the courtroom during her trial for paying $15,000 to boost her daughter Sophia's SAT scores.Credit: KATHERINE TAYLOR / Reuters

There are also talking-head interviews with experts from the multimillion-dollar industry that is independent college counsellors, education consultants and test preparation aides.

It’s to the documentary’s credit that this is, in every sense, an academic affair, shining a harsh light on the Ivy League colleges that profit from their prestigious branding. And those reenactments – which I normally loathe in documentaries – are nonsensational to a fault, eager to let the facts speak for themselves.

One benefit of that approach is that we get to see Matthew Modine back on our screens, playing Singer as a workaholic who enjoyed all the perks of a $25-million income despite a seemingly ascetic worldview.

A clear sign of the film’s restrained style is that it doesn’t seek to capitalize on the cases that catapulted the scandal into the headlines: the involvement of actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, whose daughter Olivia Jade was also a prominent social media influencer.

Lori Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli outside the courtroom in Boston during their bribery trial.Credit: Josh Reynolds/REUTERS

While this approach is laudable, it also hints at something sorely lacking in the documentary: the voices of the parents and children themselves. What makes someone who has never broken the law in their life pursue such a reckless course of action?

Furthermore, why do it when the kids were sometimes smart enough to get in on their own merits anyway – what Singer called the “front door” approach. (There’s also a “back door,” but you don’t need to worry about that unless you can afford to cut Harvard, Stanford, etc., a check for at least $10 million.)

We’re all familiar with the term helicopter parenting, in which s and/or dads hover over their kids to an overwhelming degree. But what we have in “Operation Varsity Blues” is a classic case of bulldozer parenting, in which mom and dad clear a path for their child because it’s the course they want them to pursue. This also presumably gives them bragging rights in their elite circle and shows how they’ve swallowed the hype that a kid’s future rests solely on them getting into a top college – even if, paradoxically, the successful parents never did themselves.

Also overlooked are the kids and what they think of being put forward for, say, rowing or sailing squads at USC when they probably can’t even pronounce the word “coxswain.”

You’ll learn a lot about how top education has been turned into a commodity in “Operation Varsity Blues,” but I think the best telling of this story is yet to come. Like the HBO film “Bad Education,” about a revered school superintendent who embezzled millions to fund his private life, this story would also benefit from a fictional retelling. However, this time, the focus should be solely on the parents and children – including those without the “luxury” of having a spare half-a-million dollars to spend in bribes.

I just hope there will be a couple of good roles in it for Hoffman and Loughlin.

‘'Til Kingdom Come’

Maya Zinshtein is one of the most vital documentarians making films in Israel today. In 2016 she directed the award-winning “Forever Pure,” which followed Beitar Jerusalem soccer club during a tumultuous season when it signed two Chechen Muslims – which did not go down well with those fans who proudly sing of it being “the most racist club in the country.”

She’s followed that with “'Til Kingdom Come,” a fascinating and disturbing examination of how two hitherto fringe groups – evangelical Christians and settlers – have increasingly become major political forces in both Washington and Jerusalem. The movie debuted in Israel last fall and is now available to download in America.

Zinshtein’s focus is on Binghamtown Baptist Church, an evangelical congregation in the small Kentucky city of Middlesboro – a place once known as the “Magic City” but nowadays far from spellbinding.

Led by father and son pastors Boyd Bingham IV and William Bingham III (what is it with Americans and Roman numerals?), these evangelicals, and millions of others, are driven by God’s message in Genesis 12:3 with regard to Israel: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse.” In other words, look after the Jews and I’ll see you right. (Ever get the sense that the Bible was written by a couple of Jews with chutzpah?)

As we witness the children of Middlesboro pour their pennies into a fund for Israel and see a 77-year-old Israeli woman weeping with gratitude after receiving a food parcel from such largesse, it’s impossible not to be struck by the inequity of one dirt-poor community providing for another. Of course, they’re doing it in the belief, long indoctrinated in them, that they will ultimately receive a divine reward for their actions, but it’s still unsettling to watch.

Both “Forever Pure” and “'Til Kingdom Come” hold up a mirror to some of the worst elements of Israeli society: a land where racism and religious extremism exist, and are widely recognized but rarely challenged.

But perhaps the biggest difference in the films is that where the protagonists in “Forever Pure” are honest to a fault, there’s a duplicity from all of those in “'Til Kingdom Come” that suggests some strange kind of joint death cult.

Yael Eckstein accepting a check from Pastor Boyd Bingham IV at the Binghamtown Baptist Church, in "'Til Kingdom Come."Credit: Abraham (Abie) Troen

The relationship between evangelicals and settlers (and, by extension, the Jewish state) is built on the latter ignoring what one of the film’s subjects, Yael Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, calls “the elephant in the room”: That $1.4 billion of evangelical money has ultimately been given to Israel to hasten the end-time and the prophesied “great tribulation,” when two-thirds of all Jews will perish and the others must convert to Christianity – at which point Jesus will belatedly turn up for his encore and Rapture his believers into heaven. “Amen!” or “Eh?,” depending on your perspective.

If it weren’t so unnerving, it would almost be comical to see the two communities knowingly talk past each other on this fundamental belief, and it’s left to a Palestinian pastor in Bethlehem to set the record straight in a conversation with Bingham IV, calling out U.S. evangelicals for being “obsessed with prophesy.”

The cleric, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, sums it up best when he says of the evangelicals: “When you see them advocating for a regional war in the Middle East – which could be catastrophic for all of us – it’s really scary. We cannot underestimate their influence anymore.”

Watch “'Til Kingdom Come” and you won’t be underestimating their influence either. You’ll also be eager to see what Zinshtein focuses her sharp eye on next.

‘Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry’

I guess we should have known American pop sensation Billie Eilish would grow up a little different when her parents gave her the middle name “Pirate” and never sent her to school.

What we couldn’t have expected was such a preternaturally gifted teenager capable of speaking to millions with songs “telling you how I am as a human,” as she puts it in this new Apple TV documentary that takes its name from a line in her song “ilomilo.”

Eilish manages to come across as both your average sulky 17-year-old and an artist with wisdom way beyond her years in this fly-on-the-wall documentary. She’s simultaneously a teenager still living at home, being given driving tips by her zen dad, yet also a unique talent able to connect with fans through her vulnerability, honesty and sheer talent.

I never tire of music documentaries, and while I’m a fan of Eilish’s work, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sit through a 140-minute film about her. After all, it’s not as if she even has 140 minutes of music to her name.

Yet this is such an engaging, access-all-areas portrait, it’s impossible not to be swept into her world – perfectly encapsulated by the images of her creating songs and goofing around with brother Finneas O’Connell in their nondescript LA family home as the pet pooch listens in.

A scene from "Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry."Credit: /AP

We also follow her on tour as she’s engulfed by thousands of adoring admirers, almost all young women. “Billie, your music saved my life,” one youngster cries at her, and you can’t question the hypnotic power of that music – simple yet seductive songs like “Wish You Were Gay” and “idontwanttobeyouanymore.”

I would have liked more input from Finneas, who co-writes all of the songs with his younger sister, but otherwise R.J. Cutler’s film is a fascinating snapshot of a seriously impressive young artist and her attendant doubts about herself. You’ve also got to love Cutler’s range, given that his previous documentary subjects include John Belushi, Dick Cheney and Anna Wintour.

The lengthy running time may test the patience of nonbelievers, and I was struck that a film about Eilish required 30 more minutes than Frank Marshall needed for his wonderful recent film “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” – which managed to incorporate the history of a band with over 20 No. 1 hits and a potted history of disco into just 110 minutes.

The wealth of great music documentaries over the past year has been a salve for fans starved of live gigs (don’t miss “The Go-Go’s” and “Laurel Canyon,” either). Next up is HBO’s film on Tina Turner, which I’ll be writing about soon. And while we’re on the subject, I’d just like to bang the drum for a definitive documentary or fictional film about Fleetwood Mac. Who knows, maybe they could cast Billie Eilish as a young Stevie Nicks.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is on Netflix from Wednesday. “'Til Kingdom Come” is available in America as a Watch Now @ Home cinema release. “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” is also available now on Apple TV.

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