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MOVIE REVIEW

'Harvard Beats Yale 29-29'

The game ended in a memorable tie; the documentary is a memorable winner.

March 06, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC
  • COMEBACK: Pete Varney catches the pass that put Harvard even with favored Yale. The Harvard Crimson headline: ?Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.?
COMEBACK: Pete Varney catches the pass that put Harvard even with favored… (Frank O'Brien / Kino…)

It takes a lot of confidence for a film to give away its ending in its title, which is just what "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" does. This is a documentary that knows it's got the goods, and does it ever.

A look at the legendary Nov. 23, 1968, game, "Harvard Beats Yale" is both an irresistible human story and as fine a documentary on football as "Hoop Dreams" was on basketball. At a time when salary disputes and drug scandals show sports at its worst, this low-key epic demonstrates why what's been called "the toy department of our culture" has the powerful appeal it does.

As director, producer, interviewer, cameraman and editor of what is essentially a one-man production, veteran documentarian Kevin Rafferty has followed the simplest possible game plan. He's intercut a broadcast video of that game with interviews he's done with close to 50 of the surviving players.

That might not work with any game, but the 1968 Harvard-Yale contest was anything but ordinary. Played against the background of the turbulent 1960s, it featured the first meeting of undefeated Harvard and Yale teams since 1909. Heavily favored Yale was the No. 16 team in the nation (hard as that is to believe today), with Brian Dowling at quarterback and future NFL all-pro Calvin Hill in the backfield.

The structure is especially effective because if the passing of 40 years does nothing else, it lends perspective to passions and memories. The unmatched candor and insight of these former players recounting what was not only the game of their careers but possibly the experience of their lives is wonderful.

That passing of time has also brushed some of the players against celebrity. Harvard offensive guard Tommy Lee Jones has become an Oscar-winning actor, Brian Dowling has become the "B.D." in Doonesbury (Garry Trudeau went to Yale), and teammate Bob Levin remembers dating a Vassar undergraduate named Meryl Streep.

Though these two schools might sound interchangeable as top-drawer Ivy League institutions, the reality was different. Yale comes across as much more of an elite establishment (one of the players roomed with George W. Bush for three years), while Harvard seems like a scrappy, working class team, featuring people like safety Pat Conway, who had left school for two years and returned a Marine veteran of the siege of Khe Sanh.

Despite Harvard's celebrated "Boston Strangler" defense, Yale very much expected to win, and was doing just that, leading 29-13 with less than a minute to play. Then followed a comeback for the ages, so unbelievable that the Harvard Crimson ran the headline that gives the film its title, a headline that didn't make sense but couldn't be denied. Kind of like the game itself.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Harvard Beats Yale 29-29'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223

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