Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Dowling, Frank Champi, Vic Gatto. Rated PG.
can be forgiven for not counting The Game – the annual
college football contest between the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Bulldogs –
among 1968’s most memorable events.
During a year that witnessed the assassinations of Martin
Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the election of Richard Nixon and the
escalation of Vietnam War protests, even one of the most exciting finishes in
sports history – Harvard, an apparently hopeless underdog against undefeated
Yale, scored an unthinkable 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn the
now-famous tie – might understandably be overlooked.
Yet director Kevin Rafferty (1982’s The Atomic Café) has
made it the focus of his new documentary, Harvard
Beats Yale 29-29 (the title is taken from
the celebratory headline in the Harvard student newspaper), combining grainy
footage of The Game and interviews with the men who played it. In turn, the
players provide absorbing commentary on everything from porous defensive
schemes and old gridiron grudges to the then-stormy political climates at two
of the nation’s most celebrated universities.
One of the virtues of the film is that it allows players
from both sides to tell the story of the game, and that tumultuous year,
without making any of them out to be larger than the world they describe.
(Rafferty, a Harvard graduate, is also a first cousin to Yale alum George W.
Bush.) While individual personalities emerge, the director’s cast of colorful
(though predominantly white) narrators remains largely obscure save for the
most famous of the lot, Harvard tackle Tommy Lee Jones and Yale quarterback
Brian Dowling, the inspiration for the B.D. character in Eli alum Garry
There are game-day heroes here but no villains, really,
unless you count former Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, who candidly
acknowledges attempting to injure opposing players but compliments the refs for
calling him on it. Harvard Beats Yale
isn’t about choosing sides – it’s surprisingly even-handed – so much as it is
an enthralling, sometimes wistful reflection on a period of massive social
upheaval and one of college football’s greatest contests. As its gloriously
unlikely finish draws near, Harvard passing for a two-point conversion on the
afternoon’s final play, Rafferty focuses more on the game, which would be
captivating to anyone with even a passing interest in sport.
For those lacking such interest, the memories the game
evokes in its stars, now well into middle age but clearly moved when recalling
that November’s consummation of one of America’s oldest sports rivalries, weave
a narrative that transcends football.
There is heartbreak and ecstasy in the end, as there
must be when one team celebrates and the other looks on in defeat. And though there may not have been a clear-cut victor here,
for members of Yale's finest team ever, who celebrated at halftime in anticipation of a win at Harvard's expense, there has
never been a more crushing loss.