You comedy lovers who are fans of the parody newspaper The Onion are probably already familiar with that publication's penchant for hilarious headlines like "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg" or my own particular favorite "Tipper Gore Jerks Arrhythmically at Inaugural Ball." You might therefore be forgiven if, upon hearing the title Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, you think you've stumbled onto a satirical film in the Onion vein, but the fact is that this is a documentary, one which cribs its moniker from a very famous actual headline in The Harvard Crimson in 1968.
I am really not much of a football fan when you get right down to it. There is just too much stopping and starting for my latent attention deficit disorder to ever really make the game consistently interesting to me. I much prefer the manic pace of basketball. That said, like a lot of guys, I have fond memories of watching the Super Bowl with my Dad while growing up, usually surrounded by all the neighborhood men, each rooting for their favorite team. But truth be told I very seldom watch football with my own sons; that's something they do with their Grandfather.
That fact of nothing happening for long stretches of time is both proven and disproven in the November 1968 Harvard-Yale game covered in this fascinating piece by Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Café), a filmmaker who, in a deduction made from the closing credits and acknowlegements, is evidently related to former Yale football players, and who, according to at least one online biography, is the son of the sister of Barbara Bush, herself both married to and mother of famous Yalies. Rafferty intercuts contemporary interview segments with many of the players on both the Harvard and Yale teams with television coverage of the epochal game itself. For all but the final two minutes of this game, it's typical football--long stretches of pretty much nothing interspersed with moments of excitement, most of them Yale charges and touchdowns.
If you're not familiar with what happened on November 23, 1968 at Harvard Stadium, it's almost too improbable to believe. For the first time since 1909, both Yale and Harvard met each other for a final showdown as undefeated teams. Yale was heavily favored to win and in fact managed pretty much of a rout of Harvard for the entire first half of the game. Harvard made some halting attempts at a comeback, but as the game wound down in the fourth quarter, with around two minutes left to play, it seemed like Yale indeed would prove the prognosticators correct and walk away with a lopsided victory.
And then, simply, all Harvard hell broke loose. In a stunning series of plays (augmented by a couple of questionable calls--questionable to Yale, anyway), the Crimson Tide managed, as insane as it sounds, to bring the score up to 27-29 as the clock literally ran out on the final play. Even with people streaming onto the field (quickly ushered off by the refs), Harvard managed the impossible and completed a two point conversion to tie the game and, for all intents and purposes (at least in terms of defying expectations), win.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is a captivating character study, featuring the unlikely heroism of Harvard replacement quarterback Frank Champi upstaging the famed Yale star Brian Dowling (the inspiration for Garry Trudeau's B.D. character in Doonesbury). Other supporting players include such notables as Tommy Lee Jones. Along the way we get rather illuminating insights into these players' psyches, from a certain Yale disbelief and crumbling arrogance, to the Harvard players' equal disbelief that some sort of cosmic miracle occurred. It's also funny at times to see how various players have reacted to this unlikely turn of events and the surrounding climate at both of their campuses. In fact, one Yale player is completely dismissive of Trudeau and his cartoon football players while another seems heartily amused. On the Harvard side, Champi seems momentarily defensive that his players rib him for having such a thick Boston accent that they couldn't understand the first play he called when he was put in the game to rescue the floundering team.
This is one of the most compelling documentaries to come down the pike in quite a while, one which should appeal to an audience far beyond football fanatics. Seeing these now senior citizens (one of whom evidently has died since the filming) reminisce about their heyday and what a completely unusual turn of events meant for their lives is a lesson in human nature and how different people react and respond to events beyond their control completely differently. Some, like Jones, are quiet, reflective and philosophical. Some, like Yale's Mike Bouscaren, seem alternately resigned and then still pouting about what went down over 40 years ago.
Rafferty does well giving both sides their due, but it is after all a Harvard "rags to riches" story, and their stories are what gives the film the bulk of its emotional impact. It may be hard to take these privileged Ivy Leaguers' sorrows (at least on the Yale side) very seriously in the long run (in fact, several guys from both teams aver "it was only a football game"), but the fact is it's obvious that in the short run this game mattered a lot (and frankly may continue to matter) to the 22 men on the field, and the scores of fans in the stands and watching on television.