Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Directed by Kevin Rafferty. (2008, NR, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 17, 2009
My favorite football team is Chelsea, which tells you all you need to know about my relationship to both the NFL and American collegiate football. That said, pigskin fan or not, it's more than likely you're going to want a professional manicure after viewing Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, because your fingernails are going to be gnawed right down to the quick, so dramatic and improbable are both the story of this historic game and the story behind it. Rafferty, a documentary filmmaker involved with the seminal Eighties doc The Atomic Cafe and 1992's prescient Feed, establishes the November 23, 1968, game between the legendary Ivy League archrivals as a turning point not only for the players on the field and the fans on the stands but for the world as a whole. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and one of the most turbulent years in all of U.S. history, Rafferty's doc is every bit as gripping as any narrative film set inside the arena of professional sports (excluding Rollerball, natch) and has the added benefit of being absolutely true. After first establishing the incendiary temper of the times – Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy have recently been assassinated, and among the players on the two teams were Vietnam vets, gung-ho ROTC cadets, and members of the Students for a Democratic Society – Rafferty deftly cuts between eloquent, sometimes inaccurate reminiscences from the key players and electrifying footage of the game itself. Fascinating cultural tidbits abound, most notably in the form of (then-Harvard lineman) Tommy Lee Jones, who recalls that "revolution was in the air, [and] ideas were flying around like bullets." (He also deadpans a bizarrely hilarious riff on his Harvard roomie Al Gore roasting a Thanksgiving turkey in his dormitory fireplace.) The crux of the on-field action revolves around the heavily favored Yale, ahead 22-6 at halftime, and their stunning reversal of fortune at the hands of the Harvard Crimson, which ended the game in an impossible-to-predict tie that, aesthetically anyway, meant Harvard came out on top. Even if you're familiar with the details of the game, Rafferty's suspenseful editing draws you to the edge of your seat and beyond, back into 1968 itself. If you're not cheering and/or picking your jaw up off the floor by the time Harvard tight end Pete Varney scores the final two-pointer, consider yourself immune to the sporting life and astonishing documentary filmmaking, in that order.