- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

There’s something oddly dissonant about listening to a gaggle of Harvard graduates talk about being scrappy, blue-collar underdogs. But that’s the heart of “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” Kevin Rafferty’s new documentary about the 1968 game between the two Ivy League powers.

Featuring interviews with players from both squads, Mr. Rafferty’s film tries to anchor the movie in the tumult of 1968 and the problems plaguing college campuses at the time. The Vietnam War rages on: One of the Harvard players, Pat Conway, is a vet who fought at Khe Sanh while his teammates were members of campus protest groups. The sexual revolution continues apace. Players remember where they were when Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.

Famous faces flit in and out of the movie. One of the Harvard guys dated Meryl Streep. Gary Trudeau took shots at the Yale jocks in his Bull Tales cartoon strip, the precursor to Doonesbury. George W. Bush was roommate to one of the Yale players. Tommy Lee Jones played for Harvard, and his roommate was Al Gore.

One’s tolerance for the film might be tested by the interviewees’ nostalgia for the antics of the boomers, and their self-regard, but once the film moves past Mr. Rafferty’s efforts to ground the action in the ‘60s and imbue it with a deeper meaning, the pace picks up.

The heart of the movie is the football game, and it’s made all the more interesting by the fact that its highlights haven’t been burned into our memory over the years by constant replays. Those outside of the Ivy League (and, let’s be frank, those outside the sanctified air of Cambridge and New Haven) probably won’t remember how the game played out or why Harvard could claim victory despite the tie score.

Peppering interviews with the players amid the Zapruder-like television footage of the game itself, Mr. Rafferty really gets to the heart of a great rivalry and the emotions that accompany a crushing loss. Or, I suppose, a crushing tie.

One imagines that Spike Lee could craft an entire dissertation on the fact that a movie about a game between two predominantly white football teams managed to get made without any interviews from the best athlete on either side (black Yale running back Calvin Hill, a four-time Pro Bowler in the NFL). At the very least, it would make an interesting chapter in a longer treatise on white appropriation of sports, preferably sandwiched between harangues against “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.”

All kidding aside, there’s much to enjoy in this strangely gripping movie about a 40-year-old football game. Mr. Rafferty’s direction is solid, tying together the action without the aid of a voice-over — though he does cheat at that convention a couple of times by adding cards explaining gaps in the game’s action.

★★½

TITLE: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29”

RATING: Not rated (Some adult language)

CREDITS: Directed by Kevin Rafferty

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.kino.com/harvardbeatsyale

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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