Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 – Movie Review

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harvard_beats_yale_2929Kevin Rafferty, filmmaker and Harvard grad, uses archival footage and interviews with team members to ‘replay’ the legendary football game in which the undefeated teams of Harvard and Yale battled it out for the 1968 season’s final victory. The film’s title, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, may give away the results, but the football plays, commentaries and remembrances presented in this sports documentary are gripping–even if you’re not a football fan.

Sportive Social Commentary

It was 1968, a tumultuous year in American history. There were race riots, protests against the Vietnam War and incidents of police violence against civilian demonstrators.

Social and political turmoil turned college students on campuses across the nation into activists–even within the privileged confines of Harvard and Yale.

Against this background of social strife, however, students at these still male-only Ivy League institutions seemed to unite in support of their respective football teams, the Harvard Crimson and Yale Bulldogs.

At the end of the season, each of the teams, as it happened, were undefeated. Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is about their historic playoff.

Director Kevin Rafferty uses footage from the game, showing crowd-pleasing play complete with instant replays, to show how the Harvard Crimson, the underdogs, recovered from what looked to be sure defeat at halftime, to tie the Yale Bulldogs 29-29. Yes, that’s a tie. But the circumstances were so extraordinary that both Harvard and Yale considered the game to be Harvard’s victory.

The football plays are interspersed with commentaries by Crimson and Bulldog teammates–including actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was playing for Harvard–expressing their utter amazement at how the game played out. They felt as though they were in a dream, they say.

Rafferty interviewed the players in small groups, so they could interact and call forth each others’ memories about the game, life on campus, and the tumultuous times in our nation’s history.

Sportive Nostalgia

The film’s focus is clearly on the game, but the commentaries from now middle-aged players are rather nostalgic in nature. Photos of them as they were way back when seems to emphasis their age–but they still seemed to recall the singular experience of playing that game with youthful wonderment.

The players start as distinct characters, some are exuberant, others are arrogant. In general, the Harvard players describe themselves as working class kids who were rather surprised to find themselves on the Harvard campus, while the Yale team members pretty much claim Ivy League legacy.

The Yalies were sure they’d win the game–they claimed an unstoppable duo in Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill. Dowling, who’d never lost a game in his entire football career, is interviewed in the documentary. Hill, who went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys and is the only African-American player in the film, is shown only in archival footage, but not in interview. That’s a shame–it would be very interesting to hear his comments on both the game and the times.

The Crimson’s second half comeback was guided by a little known player named Frank Champi, an unassuming guy who’d spent most of his team time on the bench, and who amazed himself and everyone else with the victory. His down to earth comments are refreshing.

All in all, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is an entertaining look at the famous football game, and a gently informative commentary about the tumultuous times during which it was played. This film’s a winner!

Film Details:

Release Date: November, 14, 2008 in limited release
Running Time: 105 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Location: Cambridge, Mass., USA
Language: English
Company: Kevin Rafferty Productions/Kino International

Watch the Trailer

This documentary review originally appeared on About.com

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