In Ivy-League Kind of Game

I had the great good fortune recently of seeing Kevin Rafferty's genial documentary Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 with my good friend and colleague Bob Lamm. Bob, you see, was actually at the famous football game in question back in 1968, and when I finished giving him CPR to get him back to a conscious state -- he warned me that reliving the trauma would be dangerous -- he stammered out a gasping thank-you. The film is playing at Film Forum through December 2.

As some of you know, I was as sportswriter for about 15 years, and the perspective I bring to sports movies is a trifle odd. (Don't say it.) People who only know that I was trained as a film critic and spent time as a sportswriter make the peculiar assumption that I love "sports movies," by which they mean fiction films in which actors play at playing games.

I don't. I hate them. I hate them because they reek of fake sentimentality worse than any other film genre I can think of (other than holiday-themed family comedies and dramas, particularly those set at Christmas). I hate them because the filmmakers always boast about how authentic their new epic is and how hard the actors worked to learn to play the sport in question; with a very, very few exceptions, the actors look awkward, even foolish at whatever the athletic endeavor in question may be.

Most of all, though, I hate sports fiction films because they invariably focus on what is least interesting to me as a film critic and sportswriter, who wins or loses the "big game." Of course in the real world that is a matter of some concern in and of itself -- I'm fascinated by strategy and tactics, so I'm not indifferent to that question. I love what former major-league catcher Ted Simmons called his favorite part of the game: "the mental application of physical skills." But what is truly interesting about sports is one that is seldom touched on in the sports fiction film, what our games tell us about who we are and what we value. (Hogwash like Field of Dreams purport to tell us that, but that film is clueless beyond a certain orotund spewing of fake-poetic cliches.)

For that we must turn, almost always, to sports documentaries, and that has become a growth field in recent years. These films, at their best, uncover little-known history -- Black Magic, The First Basket -- or ways in which occasionally unfamilar events can tell us something about our society -- Kicking It. Sometimes, in a film like the recent Zinedine Zidane documentary, they just let us get a lot closer to the sheer beauty of an event, the music and dance of the game that often gets lost in our concern with the nuts and bolts and stats.

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 is a film that tries to do several things at once. Since the title, drawn from a headline that ran in the Harvard Crimson after the completion of the 1968 version of this ancient rivalry, tells you the final result, certainly the interest can't be on the game's outcome. (Well, actually it is, to some extent as we will see momentarily.) And it's been a long time since either school played for anything more significant than an Ivy League title.

But Rafferty (Atomic Cafe, Blood in the Face, The Last Cigarette) is certainly not a filmmaker who would create a time-waster. In part, 29-29 is about 1968 forty years later, with a supposedly ragtag Harvard team whose members included both anti-war activists and a Vietnam veteran, safety Pat Conway, pitted against a Yale team led by Brian Dowling (who never lost a game in which he started, at any level of the sport) and Calvin Hill, possibly the greatest running back in post WWII Ivy League history. But "ragtag" Harvard were actually undefeated coming into the Yale game, and so was Yale. A recipe for a great end to the season.

But what makes it a recipe for a great film -- and make no mistake about it, 29-29 is wonderful, thoughtful fun -- is the concatenation of events on and off the field. As many of the former players interviewed in the film testify, for Harvard players. living in the heart of a major American city, it was a time of anti-war activism and Black Power, and the moment before the women's movement and the Stonewall riots challenged the conventional conception of masculinity. Yale was more isolated, almost medieval and monastic, by comparison, and the film's interview subjects reflect on that, too.

Another factor that comes into play in the film, albeit a little more obliquely, is that between them the two schools have produced many of the men who have run this country. Consider this: actor Tommy Lee Jones, who provides some memorably laughs in the film, was the Harvard roommate of Al Gore, while the Yale cheerleading squad had among its members at the time George W. Bush. And the next time those two hooked up in contest, the score was also pretty nearly a tie. (Okay, Bush won the election 5-4 in quadruple overtime, but he had to cheat to do it.) As Rafferty says in his "Director's Statement," "Some of these guys are now captains of industry and finance. Many are not . . . but certainly millionaires and possibly a billionaire or two." So whether it is intended or not -- and I'm sure it is -- in an indirect way, 29-29 tells us something about the American ruling class. At the very least, given Rafferty's astute decision to film them in their homes or private offices, we learn that for the most part, they are rather ordinary guys like you or me.

To my surprise, the game itself is still thrilling to watch. Rafferty uses an old TV broadcast of the game superbly and, as the film moves into its own second half, he shifts attention from the larger subjects to what happened on the field. There are some who would argue that this is the greatest college football game ever played. I don't know. I haven't seen every college football game ever played. I wasn't there. But Rafferty and my friend Bob were. And they seem pretty enraptured, even if Bob can't stand being reminded of the outcome.

What you have to understand is that Yale, led by Dowling (the model for B.D. in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strip), was ahead 29-13 with three mintues to play. What happened in those three minutes was pretty close to inconceivable. Perhaps, as Bob said after the film, it was the cockiness of the Yalies that brought them down; someone notes that during half-time they were fooling around in the lockerroom, throwing oranges at one another. They certainly had trouble holding on to the ball, coughing up five fumbles in the first half. And their clock management in the last five minutes was deplorable. (Harvard probably helped them on that count by running gadget plays that took forever to develop. They ran naked bootlegs, halfback option passes and double reverses to no seeming purpose. I half expected to see the Statue of Liberty play in the last drive.)

Whatever the reason, the game, as you can tell, ended in a totally unexpected draw. Which should have made everybody happy, except that Yale fully expected to win. The most telling moment in the film for me comes when Mike Bouscaren, the Yale defensive captain, says, "I'm glad we lost." So maybe the Crimson had it right after all.

Finally, and maybe I'm more acutely aware of this now than I might have been if I were reviewing this film, say, twenty years ago, Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 is poignant thanks to its simplicty, the juxtaposition of older men and their younger selves. Rafferty doesn't tell us what became of these guys (okay, we know about Tommy Lee Jones, a rare Oscar-winning offensive guard; John Hannah eat your heart out! No, not John Hannah the actor, John Hannah the Pro Football Hall of Famer). He's probably saving that for the book he's got coming out next spring. But we can see the vast difference between them in '68 and now, we know by the film's end that Harvard tackle Fritz Reed died last year, and we can feel the difference in ourselves. I suppose that one could agree with A.E. Housman that the athlete who dies young has the best of it, but I don't think so and I'm sure none of the men interviewed in this splendid film would either.

And as for the final score? I'm sure that at the time my friend Bob was typical. But as several of the former player wryly note, if either team had won, "we wouldn't be having this conversation." Or this film.


Bob Lamm said…
Since as George notes I (barely) survived watching the 29-29 tie again, I'm able to add the following about Yale and Harvard producing many of the men who've run this country, let me add the following:

1. It is worth noting that the Yale class of 1969--which included Brian Dowling, Calvin Hill, and myself--was the last class to spend four years in Yale College without there being undergraduate women students. Our class also provided much of the leadership in the successful fight for coeducation.

2. At the time of this famous football game, many young people with whom I was allied politically were running around the U.S. saying "Don't trust anyone over 30!" Their view was that if only we could get people from our generation into power, things would be dramatically better. Being at Yale at the time, I knew this was a lie.

I had gotten an in-person look at, among others, George W. Bush, John Kerry, George Pataki, and Joe Lieberman. I could see exactly who from my generation would get into power. I knew they'd be no better than Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, or Henry Kissinger. And now I've lived long enough to unequivocally state: I was right.