How many thrillers could put the outcome in the title and still provide as many white-knuckle moments as “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29”? Although common wisdom says docs can’t draw a crowd, producer-director-editor-d.p. Kevin Rafferty’s film is so much fun it could prove an exception, especially given the word of mouth that will surely follow widespread festival play.
Rafferty’s unadorned sports saga is built around the broadcast of the Nov. 23, 1968, match-up and Don Gillis’ play-by-play, which provide the thrills in a game in which Yale led 29-13 with 42 seconds to play.
But the heart comes from interviews with the players, who revisit an extraordinary football game, played at a time when the country was a political powderkeg: The two Ivy League squads, both of which entered the contest undefeated, included members of both the paramilitary ROTC and the antiwar SDS, and at least one battle-scarred Vietnam vet.
But politics were forgotten at kickoff time, the players remember. War protestors and Wall Street alums put their differences aside on Saturday afternoons to rah-rah-rah.
The Harvard Crimson were the underdogs, despite their record, Yale having been powered all season by prodigious quarterback Brian Dowling, who hadn’t been on the losing side of a football game since seventh grade. (It was Dowling who served as the model for the character B.D. in “Doonesbury,” drawn by Yale classmate Garry Trudeau.) Yale also had Calvin Hill, who would later play for Dallas in the NFL.
The former players are almost uniformly witty, charming, funny and reflective; Rafferty shoots them straightforwardly, without much comment, although when he does ask a question, the answer is usually hilarious. The ex-players include Tommy Lee Jones, who was on the team, too (if not a pivotal part of the game), and the actor is generally so humorless that this becomes funny in and of itself.
While “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” would seem an unusual choice for the politically minded Rafferty (“Feed,” “The Atomic Cafe”), the game does serve as something of a metaphor for both coexistence and tenacity, given its time and place. One implied lesson arises from how the men have lived with the results over the last 40 years — “It was just a football game,” one says, almost blasphemously, but putting the whole of collegiate sports in perspective.