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FAN OF THE HOUSE/CHRIS ERSKINE

Yale-Harvard game documentary is subtly wonderful

The movie about the schools' 1968 football game, in theaters around Los Angeles, has more heart, drama and elusive little truths than most novels.

March 26, 2009|CHRIS ERSKINE

As you know by now, I am a curator of elusive little truths, in an era when everyone's trying to stomp them dead. I can smile for days on the strength of one dead-on observation in a Dilbert cartoon or a great zinger on "30 Rock."

So in an era of bombast, media machines and grossly over-the-top sports telecasts, it is a mitzvah for me to come across something as purely wonderful as "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."

True, when I like something I get a physical reaction, almost like the flu. And I really like this little football documentary, appearing in fits and bursts the last couple of weeks in theaters around Los Angeles. It has more heart, drama and elusive little truths than most novels. If you like film and you like sports, this thing is for you.

You may be aware of the story. In 1968, undefeated Yale squared off against undefeated Harvard on a chilly late November day in Boston. Who cares about a bunch of undersized rich kids playing in a second-tier league? You will. After the first snap, you'll be hooked.

The documentary follows the course of the still-famous game, in a refreshingly simple black-and-white replay, with lone TV announcer Don Gillis sounding a little like Edward R. Murrow.

Laced throughout, and full of life's little truths, are the contemporary recollections of the players from both sides, talking about how Yale was supposed to steamroll its rival. Sure enough, that's the way the game started out, with Yale jumping to a 22-0 lead.

This is a "Hoosiers" of the gridiron, or "Rocky," with traces of Hemingway. There is a celebrity quotient, but don't let that ruin it for you. One of the Yale running backs was dating Meryl Streep at the time, and Tommy Lee Jones was a lineman for Harvard.

"Ideas were flying around like bullets," the grumpy actor says in describing campus life in 1968.

Sure, you have your share of dopes, and that's some of the fun. One, Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, talks candidly about his delight in injuring opposing players. There is one amusing segment in which he claims to have knocked a dangerous running back out of the game, but filmmaker Kevin Rafferty shows in replays that the linebacker was nowhere near the play.

Later, in a more haunting scene, Bouscaren talks about being called for an intentional facemask penalty.

"My intent was to inflict so much damage on him that he wouldn't be able to play the game anymore," Bouscaren confesses. "I was hellbent for destruction, and I got what I deserved. Good call."

But these snippets make the whole piece seem darker than it really is. Most of these guys are easygoing and likable, clearly delighting in discussing the miracle they were a part of 40 years ago, a coming of age for all involved.

Particularly compelling is the story of Harvard backup quarterback Frank Champi, who came into the game to try to get the offense moving and ended up engineering one of the great college comebacks. Champi's Boston accent was so thick, his teammates couldn't understand the first play he called. "Forty-one on one," came out as "fowty-wordy on whad."

In the end, Champi would be a worthy match for his Yale counterpart, Brian Dowling, who is best known today as the helmet-wearing B.D. character in "Doonesbury" (classmate Garry Trudeau had already begun drawing the strip in the Yale Daily News).

Yale was rated 16th in the nation at the time, and also had future Cowboy Calvin Hill in the backfield. In the first half, the Bulldogs didn't just outplay Harvard. They rolled them up and smoked 'em.

Wow, what a great ride, this game. Harvard, of course, wiggles its way back into the contest after a series of uncanny plays. The game all but over, Harvard scores two touchdowns and two two-point conversions in the final minute to secure a tie that felt as momentous as any win.

"You just got the feeling that the universe had shifted somehow and that something significant, portentous, weird was taking place," recalls Yale's Tom Peacock.

There are clutch catches and stupid (sometimes questionable) penalties and heroic throws. Rafferty does an artful job of stitching it all together. If you like football, you'll love this. Scramble off the couch and see it before it disappears. It'll be showing at 11 a.m. this weekend at the Laemmle's in Santa Monica and comes out on DVD this summer.

In a similar vein, KCET is about to air the first broadcast showing of "Quantum Hoops," the story of the Caltech basketball team's quest for one lousy win. This 2007 documentary, narrated by David Duchovny, is a little slower and maybe 20 minutes too long. But as with "Harvard Beats Yale," it is an ode to college sports as the character builder we'd like it to be. It runs April 4 at 10 p.m. and April 5 at 3:30 p.m.

In the last week, if you've had your fill of those trash-talking meatballs tugging at their basketball jerseys, spend some time with either of these smart and reassuring little movies.

They will comfort you like an old trophy.

--

Erskine's "Man of the House" column appears in Saturday's Home section.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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