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Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 105 minutes.

Who cares about a football game played in 1968? And an Ivy League football game, at that?

In 1968 both Harvard and Yale entered their Big Game undefeated, the first time that had happened since 1909. Despite this, Yale, ranked 16th in the nation, was the heavy favorite. Adding flavor to this documentary is the year in which the game was played, 1968, when everything seemed to have happened.

Director Kevin Rafferty attended Harvard; his father attended Yale. Kevin sat on the Harvard side; his father on the Yale side. After the game ended, his father, who had been a fighter pilot in World War II and shot down by the Germans, who had lost a brother in World War II, who had seen close friends die at the hands of the Nazis, who had been through a lot, told Kevin, “This is the worst day of my life.”

This game had everything, including an ending as improbable as the famous 1982 Stanford-Cal game when Cal made five laterals and ran through the Stanford band to win the game in the last 3 seconds. It also has a Horatio Alger story reminiscent of the 1939 Rose Bowl game when 4th string quarterback Doyle Nave came off the bench to play his only quarter of the year to lead USC to a 7-3 victory over Duke. Even as you’re watching the film and know that the final score was 29-29, you can’t believe that that’s the way it’s going to end. As we see the game unfold, one cannot conceive that Harvard would ever have a chance. It simply isn’t possible.

Many people we know today, like Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, and “Doonesbury” creator Gary Trudeau (B.D. was based on Yale’s quarterback that year, Brian Dowling), were involved in the game or the people. This film has some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a movie. Just as one example, when Tommy Lee Jones, who was on the Harvard squad, tells how funny his roommate, Al Gore, was, is asked for specifics, and gives them totally deadpan, I was laughing uncontrollably.

The story is told by director Kevin Rafferty by showing game films, alternating with the players themselves (including an old friend of mine, Nick Davidson, who was a halfback and always said his main job was blocking for Yale’s All American running back, Calvin Hill) describing the game, their teams, coaches, teammates, and lifestyles. They tell it with such a lack of guile that it is often hilarious.

If one person sets this film apart from being just another documentary, it is Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren. His brutal honesty is refreshing, but his unapologetic arrogance is so humorous that it gets so that when he just appears on the screen the audience laughs, before he even starts to speak. It’s hard to believe that someone would say what he says when he knows he’s being recorded.

This is an auteur performance by Rafferty, who not only produced and directed, but also was the cinematographer and audio man. The title was a headline in the “Harvard Crimson.”

Even though it’s a football game with an unbelievable ending, the players’ stories are so well told that I don’t think one needs to be a big football fan to enjoy the film, although my friend who accompanied me, a woman who likes football, disagrees. For my money, this is a film not to miss.

March 7, 2009