It was 1968 and, as Harvard guard Tommy Lee Jones stoically recalls, “It was the best of times, the worst of times.”
The tide of popular opinion was turning, anti-war demonstrations and occasional riots were becoming more common, and, in the midst of this national upheaval, there was this game between Harvard and archrival Yale. Both teams were unbeaten, but with future NFL star Calvin Hill and quarterback Brian Dowling, the New Haven boys were heavily favored. The morning after the game, which Harvard tied with 16 points in the closing minute, the Harvard Crimson headline read, “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”
The memorable line is also the title of Kevin Rafferty’s movie about the game and the men who played in it. Working without fanfare and no voiceover narration, the players tell the story, and even though we know the outcome, Rafferty has created a film that is tense and thrilling.
Better yet, it is likely to delight even viewers who don’t give a hoot about sports.
Document of a time
In its own delightful way, it serves as a document for a time when America was about to change. Characters and events on the field somehow mirrored the state of the American mind.
‘Harvard Beats Yale 29-29’
DIRECTED BY Kevin Rafferty.
STARRING Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Dowling, Vic Gatto, Frank Champi, J.P. Goldsmith.
RUNNING TIME 105 minutes.
Yale running back Pat Conway was 24, a Marine who experienced bloody combat in Vietnam. He did not take kindly to crude anti-war demonstrators. At Harvard, the group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) reigned; most of the players were anti-war. Yet, on the field, political differences evaporated.
In the opening minutes, Rafferty is quick to document the fact that not all players were elite bluebloods. Some were sons of factory workers, regular guys. So are most of the players we meet. Happenstance or, if you prefer, the gods determined that familiar figures partake in or surround the drama. Besides Hill, there was Dowling, who had never lost a game since seventh grade. Classmate Garry Trudeau modeled B.D., the football helmet-clad character in the comic strip Doonesbury, on Dowling.
Jones relates anecdotes about roommate Al Gore, and we learn that Yale fullback Bob Levin was dating a quiet drama student named Meryl Streep. While these asides help propel the narrative, the players’ memories prevail, pumping up the action. Rafferty places us there, as he inserts footage from the game, enhanced by the comments of the late broadcaster Don Gillis.
Age of transition
Rafferty has done what seemed impossible. He has made and produced an engaging document of the times, a story about real guys in an age of transition.
We absorb the countless anecdotes, like linebacker Mike Buscarin’s confession that he tried to injure quarterback Frank Champi, put him out of the game.
We meet Champi, a guy who was shaking in his shoes when he came off the bench in the second half. It is as if fate declared this unassuming “linguistics professor” was destined for one afternoon of glory.
One player describes the experience as one offering “a tremendous sense of joy.” That sentiment conveys the feeling we have as we observe and absorb everything we can about one Saturday afternoon in November.