Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

(2009) *** Unrated
105 min. Kino International. Director: Kevin Rafferty. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Rafferty.

/content/films/3502/2.jpgNostalgia is predicated on a wistful acknowledgment of how things have changed, but more often than not the people don't so much change as their circumstances do. Kevin Rafferty's documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (timed to coincide with the release of his book of the same name) seems equally concerned with personality and circumstances, the latter being a legendary 1968 matchup marking the climax of the Ivy League football season. Rafferty (The Atomic Cafe) derives suspense from the mysterious Harvard Crimson headline that gives the film its title, and if the film meanders at times, reaching for significance in the wrong places, football fans will nevertheless find it charming.

Rafferty alternatingly tells the story of the game through impressive TV footage (complete with instant replays, the growing roar of the crowd, and snappy Don Gillis sportscasting) and the modern-day recollections of twenty-four Harvard and Yale team members. The film begins with the interviewees describing the memorable game as unreal and "weird" then moves on pointedly to portray the Harvard team as struggling working-class students in tune with the troubled tenor of the times and the Yalies as blue-blooded and insulated. The undisputed superstar of the game was Yale quarterback/team captain Brian Dowling, purportedly undefeated since seventh grade and revered as a god on his campus. Dowling also served as the model for "B.D." in Garry Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury (called Bull Tales in its incipient campus form).

Dowling seems to be a level fellow, but his defensive captain Mike Bouscaren (considered the inspiration for Mike Doonesbury) effectively accepts the role of villain: "Cast in this role of not skilled enough to play offense, you've got all these snakes in your head about, 'Y'know, I've got to make things happen. Y'know, I got to be a bad guy.'" Bouscaren's comment is meant as explanation for a pivotal face-mask foul, but he comes across even worse when Rafferty catches him in a boastful lie (or misrecollection?), using game footage against him. Yale's other star player at the time was record-breaking running back Calvin Hill, who went on to a successful NFL career. For some reason, Rafferty failed to get Hill on camera, which is a shame.

/content/films/3502/3.jpgHarvard Beats Yale 29-29 shoehorns in a fair amount of irrelevant but interesting trivia. Rafferty makes much of top-billed Tommy Lee Jones; though the Harvard lineman played no decisive role in the game, his celebrity means maximized screen time and teased-out tales of rooming with Al Gore. For good measure, Rafferty gets Ted Livingston to talk about his roommate George W. Bush, who, as a Yale cheerleader, was detained by police that season for helping to tear down the field goals after a Princeton game. Completing the celebrity trifecta, the film includes Yale fullback Bob Levin talking about dating the politically involved Meryl Streep (Scoop! Dick Williams recalls her as surprisingly "quiet"!).

Rafferty seems to use these episodes—and the oblique references to the turbulent times—almost defensively as proof of the importance of these players, by themselves or by association. Though Rafferty does include an affecting segment about how Harvard safety Pat Conway had only recently returned from an emotionally scarring tour of duty with the Marine Corps in Vietnam, the filmmaker doesn't seem to know how to convert the time-capsule politics into a relevant part of the story. Was the game a magical island apart from a mad world? Was game play affected by a changing America?

/content/films/3502/1.jpgThe answer would be to make fuller personalities of the talking heads; rather than trolling for anecdotes about Meryl Streep, time would have been better spent investigating who the players became in private life or offering greater depth regarding their feelings about their glory days (on that topic, the most memorable comment is a humorous aside about the ease of one-night-stands as the sexual revolution went into overdrive). As for the drama of the game itself, Rafferty can't miss it, whether it's Harvard's backup quarterback Frank Champi nervously stepping up, or a first-hand recollection of the seemingly slow-motion moment that clinched Harvard's "victory." When all is said and done, most will agree the event still known as "The Game" is as good as football gets.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: PCM 2.0

Street date: 7/28/2009

Distributor: Kino International

Kino sends home Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 in a handsome hi-def transfer that maximizes the source material. The original camera and lighting conditions of the interviews preclude a razor-sharpness, but I can't imagine the film looking any better, and the transfer likewise allows the original game footage to put its best foot forward. Colors seem accurate, and contrast and black level are fine. The PCM 2.0 audio gets the job done in workmanlike fashion, given source material that's alternatingly simple talking heads and vintage game footage.

Kino includes a generous series of "Bonus Interviews" (1:13:24, HD), cut footage that runs well over an hour. Fans will lap up the extra material, and documentary buffs can second guess Rafferty by mentally re-editing the film. Also included is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:16, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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