Directed by Kevin Rafferty (Kino, 2009)
Let it not be said that 1968 lacked fodder for eventual back-in-the-day documentaries. Even now, it all seems like too much: Vietnam in bloody chaos, King and Kennedy in coffins, Nixon in power, Black Panthers in the Olympics, Beatles in India, and — oh yes — two academically elite yet athletically average college football teams in a tied game just outside of Boston.
This last is the subject of former Michael Moore cameraman Kevin Rafferty’s new film, which, if nothing else, has the chutzpah to suggest that maybe even the most tumultuous years are only as good as their diversions. So if we’re going to go ahead and call this a contender for the Best College Football Game Ever award, in the category of Well, Ivy League, Anyway, we might as well also consider nominating Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 as the Best Football Movie Ever, in the category of Well, Documentary, Anyway.
The title comes from the next day’s Harvard newspaper headline: Both teams went in to this storied game undefeated, but the Bulldogs’ superiority was so unanimous, and the Crimson’s comeback so astounding, that a tie counted as a Harvard victory. And with that in mind, it’s fair to say the movie lives up to the title.
It mostly consists of old game footage and astute not-so-instant replay from the robustly aging players, whose educations clearly inclined them to philosophizing. Rafferty, himself a Harvard man, seems also inclined to characterizing his own tribe as fashionably progressive working-class fellas, and the Yalies as clueless aristocrats, but most of them are too clever and charming — and maybe wised-up from being satirized in the incipient Doonesbury by Yale’s Gary Trudeau — to abide it. After all, the reason they’re here now is to commemorate a common defiance of oversimplification: What began that day as a rote Boomer crucible of solidarity and self-actualization became a dramatic epic of improbable turnovers.
Speaking of which, this was also the first historically significant contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, in that their respective roommates happened then to be facing off on the gridiron. (Yale cheerleader Bush may or may not be among the lads seen here botching halftime stunts and blasting cannons from the sidelines.) Gore’s roommate was of course Harvard lineman Tommy Lee Jones, today as magnetic a talking head as you could hope for, summoning his memories with pregnant hesitations and much actorly gravitas.
It’s just the extra nudge Harvard Beats Yale needs to secure a place for this apotheosis of recreational rivalry among the most inherently movieish moments of 1968. That’s also the year Kubrick’s 2001 was new in theaters, so why shouldn’t the Crimson pep band strike up the commanding first notes of Thus Spake Zarathustra during the game? If Rafferty doesn’t call attention to it, maybe that’s because the mythology of otherworldly grandeur already has been established.
Jonathan Kiefer, a film critic, writes here.