Saturday, September 13, 2008

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

(Ticket stud image from the website

Today is the final day of the
Toronto International Film Festival. I was out of town for the first half of the festival so I did not get to see as many of the films that I wanted to see. However, today I caught the documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, which had its world premiere in Toronto on September 5. The film recounts the 1968 Yale at Harvard football game, when both teams were undefeated and Yale was ranked #16 in the country. Director Kevin Rafferty interviews many players from both teams, including actor Tommy Lee Jones who played guard for Harvard, and uses the original archival footage from the game as a storyboard for the player’s memories of that day (some of whom have better memories than others).

The players also discuss what was going on in the world at the time, specifically the Vietnam War. One of the Harvard players was a 24-year-old ex-Marine who had done a tour of Vietnam before re-enrolling at Harvard and playing football. Yale, which was a men’s-only school at the time, was largely conservative, while Harvard was very liberal to the point where Boston police had to be summoned to Harvard Yard to quell student protests.

Lots of other interesting pop culture events occur in the context of this game. Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau was a Yale sophomore at the time and based the character BD on Yale quarterback senior Brian Dowling. Dowling had not lost a football game since seventh grade, and other players on the team literally considered him a god. One of the Yale players was dating Vassar student Meryl Streep. Former Vice President Al Gore was Jones’s roommate at the time (though Gore was apparently not into football as Gore is only brought up in the movie once). Current US President George Bush was a cheerleader during the game, and one of the Yale players was his roommate. I nearly killed myself laughing when the Yale cheerleaders botch up the halftime cheers.

But even given all of these sub contexts, this movie is about a football game, and Rafferty rightly keeps the focus on the sport. The players were from all different backgrounds: some Midwesterners who had never been to the East Coast, some working class New Englanders with thick Boston accents, and some who were the third or fourth generation of their family to attend an Ivy League school. The former players turn out of be regular Joe’s with regular lives, except of course for Jones, who I thought came off as very aloof in this film to the point where people in the audience were giggling every time he came on screen. Most of the interviewees are very forthright and charming, though one Yale defensive player (who’s name is escaping me) comes off as a real ass when he tells how he purposely tried to injure the Harvard quarterback with a face mask grab, which subsequently gives Yale a 15 yard penalty and sets up a Harvard touchdown.

You know what is going to happen at the end of the game from the title of the film, which was taken from the following day’s headline of the Harvard Crimson. But with 42 seconds left in the game, and Yale up 29-13, I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation. Yale was a much better and stronger team, and a blowout was expected, but poor clock management, penalties, and turnovers literally make the tie game a loss for Yale and a win for Harvard. If you enjoy sports movies, you will love this documentary.

Incidentally, director Kevin Rafferty is a first cousin of George W. Bush (his mother is Barbara Bush’s older sister) and a Harvard alum, although these facts do not come out in the film. Rafferty was also a camera man and lead cinematographer on Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me, and taught Moore about filmmaking. Needless to say, Rafferty does not share his cousin’s politics.

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