'Harvard Beats Yale': another perfect game

January 30, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Uproarious, moving and thrilling, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, the account of an epochal football game played amid the turbulence of 1968, is an unexpected feat of documentary storytelling. Without grabbing you by the face mask, it rivets your attention within minutes, and maybe even before - the title alone, from a Harvard Crimson headline, sums up the tale's unique and paradoxical glory.

The movie builds with an inexorable, pleasurable pull to the game's final two minutes. They become a cinematic as well as an athletic miracle. Novelists would sweat over the shifts between subjective and objective points of view - and between exact memories and "reality" - that director Kevin Rafferty pulls off without breaking a sweat.

When Harvard quarterback Frank Champi says he saw "a tunnel" to a receiver, and Harvard captain (and halfback) Vic Gatto says, "the ball looked like a watermelon coming to me," Rafferty repeatedly cuts to actual footage. We see the game from multiple perspectives: We understand how lucidly the athletes view the action though it often looks chaotic to us.

Most players depict this grueling gridiron matchup as the dramatic high point of their lives: One admits it was more thrilling for him than his first sexual experience. Viewers come to feel that this particular game is personal and immortal - a spectacle for men and gods alike - and that the gods of football got involved in the outcome.

In 1968, Harvard and Yale went into their annual Thanksgiving contest undefeated. Yale boasted star players: halfback Calvin Hill of Baltimore and quarterback Brian Dowling. They basked in an Ivy League bubble still untouched by the tumult of the '60s. No one could figure out why the Harvard squad, full of underdog players from lower-middle-class Massachusetts, kept on winning. This diverse team of scrappers, led more by their captain, Gatto, than by their coach, boasted upfront political differences that the players tabled for the sake of the team. (Gatto muses that when they seized control of their pigskin destiny from their coach, he and his teammates echoed widespread '60s youth movements.) Yale was supposed to steamroll over Harvard and, for nearly a full half, did. But when Harvard's coach substituted an untested quarterback, Champi, for his starter, miracles started happening.

Rafferty, a Harvard man from a Yale family who was friends with a couple of the players, keeps himself out of the story line. Still, his affection for the team and the event inform every frame. He builds this story solely on the testimony of participants (he interviewed 61 of them) and the TV footage of the game. The emerging cast proves fit for a period epic, complete with clashing quarterback heroes who sum up a raft of opposing forces.

Champi, a local boy, boasts a Massachusetts accent so thick his teammates can't understand him - and a dynamite arm. Dowling is a college superstar, winning in every sense of the word: As TV commentator Don Gillis notes, he even makes scrambling look effortless.

Champi may be an outsider on his own team, but he epitomizes its gnarly variety. It even contains, at safety, ex-Marine Pat Conway, who saw action in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam. Dowling sums up a serene and glamorous Yale team swept up in the remnants of the old school boolah-boolah culture. The only change the Yalies feel blowin' in the wind is the Sexual Revolution.

The film dramatizes that in the realm of play, collegiate team sports represent something like military service: a chance for members to test themselves and to give themselves over to a higher calling. In the final minutes, both Yalies and Harvard men are equally full of surging emotion and transcendent spirit; they're part of the same fiercely physical, yet out-of-body, experience. For the Harvard squad, it's "a waking dream" and for the Yalies, it's "a slow-motion nightmare."

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 touches on peculiar male hangups with a trenchant intelligence and humor rarely seen outside the sports-themed movies of Ron Shelton. Yale defensive captain and linebacker Mike Bouscaren takes full blame for pivotal penalties. He even assumes responsibility for helmet-spearing a Harvard man, though the game film reveals that a different Yalie sent the injured player out of the game. Bouscaren says he appreciates the game for teaching him humility. He knows he earned those penalties because he was pushing himself to be great after he fumbled a punt and thus set up Harvard's second touchdown. In his interview, he appears to be more than humbled: He's haunted.

The movie brims over with incidental pleasures: Yale fullback Bob Levin dated a retiring lass named Meryl Streep, and both Al Gore and George W. Bush were roommates of players at their respective schools, Harvard and Yale. Gore's roomie was an All-Ivy League guard who became a celebrated actor: Tommy Lee Jones, perhaps Rafferty's most fascinating interviewee. Jones has a rueful humor and a ruminating distance that's both sardonic and philosophic. After he says that if a Harvard kicker made a first-half field goal, the game would have been a clear-cut win for Harvard, he notes that it takes 11 people to make a mistake in a football game.

For Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, it took 61 subjects and one inspired director to make a terrific movie.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 ****

(4 STARS)

(Kino) Kevin Rafferty's documentary stars Tommy Lee Jones and other members of '68 Yale and Harvard football teams. Rated PG. Time 105 minutes.

Michael Sragow talks with director Kevin Rafferty. PG 3

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