Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 Dir. Kevin Rafferty

[Kevin Rafferty Productions/Kino International; 2008]

If you have any stake in Harvard or Yale, you know their yearly match-up on the football field simply as “The Game.” The schools' 1968 contest was more hotly anticipated than usual; for the first time since 1909, the Ivy League nemeses were both undefeated as they entered their final game of the season. Kevin Rafferty’s new documentary arrives almost 40 years to the day since Harvard tied Yale in the competition’s final moments, a conclusion so unexpected that the Harvard Crimson snatched victory from the stalemate in their headline: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

For his new film, Rafferty collected interviews with 64 of the players from that fateful tournament, all of whom recall the long-ago November day with vivid clarity. These recollections reveal how consequential the game in question was for everyone involved: In 1968, before Harvard merged with Radcliffe and Yale began admitting women, football dominated campus life. Even school officials were swept up in the fervor, as Yale president Kingman Brewster once led his students in a “Fuck Princeton” cheer.

Rafferty lets the players tell the story, without voiceover narration, and we quickly learn that they were a motley bunch. Harvard safety Pat Conway had recently returned from Vietnam, while one of his teammates joined SDS. A Yale player describes putting up “We Won’t Go” posters with his Vassar girlfriend – Meryl Streep. Another Yalie, who explains that his alma mater was “not a hotbed of liberalism,” recalls the day his classmate George W. Bush was arrested for hanging from Princeton’s goal posts. And Rafferty’s interviews with terse Harvard lineman Tommy Lee Jones are tensely funny: the director prods Jones into revealing that Al Gore, his roommate, liked to entertain visitors by playing “Dixie” on the buttons of their telephone.

As compelling as the players are, the film nonetheless feels somewhat stilted. Rafferty’s unimaginative structure – he intercuts the interviews with footage from the game – becomes claustrophobic; the filmmaker isn’t as expansive as he could be in capturing the era’s fraught cultural climate. And with the documentary’s momentum hinging so directly on The Game’s, the movie lags in getting to those final, decisive moments. (I began to wonder, with Yale ahead just before the final buzzer, if the title might refer to a metaphorical victory rather than a literal one). And if, like me, you find football less viscerally exciting than soccer or hockey (or most other things in life), you might find yourself growing restless during the less suspenseful segments.

Despite its weaknesses, the movie ends on a thrilling note. Yale was heavily favored to triumph, even as Harvard’s score began to surge in the game’s second half. With future Dallas Cowboy Calvin Hill and team captain Brian Dowling, dubbed “God” by Yalies for not having lost a game since seventh grade, heading the charge, the Bulldogs led the Crimsons with only a minute left on the clock. But Yale fans, who had been jeering “You’re Number Two,” would get their comeuppance. One of the players says the outcome felt like a dream, and the analogy is apt. As Rafferty shows us, both teams are still processing the dizzying turn of events 40 years later -- Yale struggling to come to grips with it, Harvard continuing to revel in their glory.

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