The times beyond the tie
by Molly Templeton
HARVARD BEATS YALE 29-29: Directed, produced, filmed and edited by Kevin Rafferty. With Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Dowling, Frank Champi and Mike Bouscaren. Kino, 2009. PG. 105 minutes.
On November 23, 1968, a young Kevin Rafferty was in the stands for what would turn out to be a famous football game, a meeting between two undefeated teams that technically left them both undefeated but nonetheless had a clear victor. The Harvard Crimson announced as much the next day: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” read the headline. Rafferty, smartly, borrowed the line for his documentary, which is similarly both straightfoward and complicated. It’s a tie, but there’s a winner; it’s a sports story, but there’s another side.
Rafferty starts out heavy on the sporting side, setting up an impossibly fraught scenario, a game to end all games, a battle in which some other force, the players say, seemed to tip the scales in favor of the underdog Harvard team. Yale had a star quarterback, Brian Dowling (the B.D. of fellow Yale student Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury); Harvard had future Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones and a second-string quarterback, Frank Champi, whose thick accent proved a touch confusing to his teammates.
Harvard Beats Yale is a thriller of a football film, and one that nicely demonstrates how knowing the end of a story is not at all the same as knowing exactly how it plays out. But Rafferty has a bigger scope in mind even as he limits his footage almost exclusively to the actual game and interviews with the players — interviews shot in kitchens and offices, each man simultaneously comfortably in his own world and entirely wrapped up in the past. After setting up the game and the rivalry, Rafferty sweeps his interviewees into a broader commentary on the era. The players don’t just talk about blown plays and the bubble world of life on campus; they talk about having teammates jeer their anti-war demonstrations, or about going from the battlefield in Vietnam to the football field in Cambridge, or about the effect the arrival of birth control had on their social universe. Mike Bouscaren, the story’s unexpected villain — at least on the field — talks about palling around with George W. Bush, while Tommy Lee Jones, pressed to explain why his then-roommate Al Gore was funny, offers a story about Gore learning to play “Dixie” on a pushbutton phone. Jones, the film’s most familiar face (apart from a quick glimpse of Meryl Streep, a Yale player’s girlfriend at the time), is a strange character here, his commentary an odd blend of clichés and lengthy pauses. Not all the players stand out like Yale’s Bouscaren or Harvard’s Champi, but each has his moment, be it a story to tell or a play that was vital to the game’s outcome.
And what an outcome it was. As the game plays out, play by tense play, Rafferty slows down time, slipping interview snippets in between the time the ball leaves one player’s hands and lands (or doesn’t) in another’s. And we’re not the only ones wrapped up in it: The way the players talk, it seems impossible that this game happened more than 40 years ago. For 1968, one football game was a very small thing. For these guys — and in Rafferty’s hands — it was clearly part of something much bigger.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 opens Friday, May 1, at the Bijou.