I think it’s fair to say that ordinarily the rerun of a football game—even with the dull stretches and commercials removed—is something that would appeal only to the most fanatical followers of the teams involved. But Kevin Rafferty’s documentary, much of which consists of footage from a contest between Harvard and Yale on November 23, 1968, is different; even for viewers who regularly skip the Super Bowl it will be something to cheer.
Both teams entered the stadium undefeated, but Yale, captained by legendary quarterback Brian Dowling, was the heavy favorite, and for most of the game it looked as though they would stomp the underdog. But with less than a minute left, Harvard scored sixteen points to tie. For the Crimson it was a miracle finish. For Yale, a nightmare succession of penalties and blunders.
As a piece of pure cinema, there’s not much to say about “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.” The game footage is pretty raw, and the period play-by-play commentary by Don Gillis fine but not particularly insightful. If the picture consisted of nothing more than that, it would be an interesting artifact, but nothing more, even though the game had plenty of dramatic twists apart from the last forty seconds (the Harvard rally, for instance, was sparked by a second-string quarterback brought it when the starter faltered).
But that’s just the beginning. Rafferty provides a good, if unexceptional, historical introduction, but more importantly he’s tracked down nearly fifty players from the two squads and inserted bits and pieces of their recollections and observations at appropriate points in the footage. And what they have to say adds enormously to the action. They remember things perfectly (from their peculiar perspectives, of course—a couple of Yalies dispute a face-guard penalty called in the last minute, but the player who was cited for it admits that the ref was right) and give you a sense of being there that even the film can’t convey. They talk about the wider campus situation of the time, when anti-Vietnam protests were rife and players held very different political views—which they left off the field, of course.
And there are plenty of tidbits along the way. Memories of a college-age Meryl Streep, whom one of the players dated (she’s remembered as quiet, like most girls of the day). Observations about how players were models for Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury characters (QB Dowling for B.D., linebacker Mike Bouscaren for Mike). Recollections of George W. Bush by a Yale player who palled around with him, and of Al Gore from a Harvard player who was his roommate—and happens to be none other than Tommy Lee Jones, who takes the game very seriously, more so in fact than the teammates who had a lot more time on the field. (His attempt to prove that Gore was a fun guy is especially ludicrous, though he certainly doesn’t intend it to be.)
That’s what makes “Harvard Beats Yale” more than just a not-so-instant replay. With the interviews added, it becomes a cultural time capsule, a commentary on sportsmanship, and an introduction to some articulate and interesting aging athletes, all at once. It may not be one of the great, important documentaries to appear recently—and there have been some outstanding ones. But even for non-jocks, it will prove awfully enjoyable.