“Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29”

The documentary “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29” tells the surprisingly engrossing story of the 1968 football game between the aforementioned Ivies.  It’s pretty low-budget — the interviews with Harvard and Yale players take place in beige basements, kitchens with coffeemakers in view, and the occasional office.  Yet the interviews, interspersed with game footage, interweave the politics of the Vietnam War, false memories of who hit whom, and intricate details of the game.  Either this game is heavily imprinted in the players’ minds, or they’ve been re-watching footage for the last forty years.

You may know that Tommy Lee Jones went to Harvard; you may know that he roomed with Al Gore.  You may not know that TLJ played in the 1968 game, nor that one of the classic changes of that era was the introduction of the push-button phone.  He relates how Gore was “funny,” and when the interviewer pushes him to offer an example, Jones tells how Gore taught himself to play “Dixie” on the phone buttons.  Jones also recalls how, one year, he and Gore were left to fend for themselves for Thanksgiving.  They roasted/smoked a turkey in a fireplace for their meal.

George W. Bush was at Yale at the time (maybe he’s in the footage of the hapless Yale cheerleaders), and one former Yalie remembers spending time with him, but we don’t get any juicy details about #43, except that there was a lot of partying.  Another Yalie, now bald and stout, describes dating Meryl Streep and proves it with a photo.  She’s about 20 in the photo, but it’s unmistakably Streep.

These are the kinds of details I didn’t expect when sitting down to watch a football documentary.  I did expect a blow-by-blow, which we get.  It’s a blowout in the first half, as Yale’s quarterback Brian Dowling (the model for the B.D. character in the comic strip “Doonesbury”) rolls over the Harvard defense.  Two minutes before the end of the fourth quarter, Harvard is still down by two touchdowns — it’s wild and unbelievable.  Perhaps most unbelievable is the fact that Yale doesn’t anticipate an onside kick.  It’s not as though the onside kick was a new invention; Harvard had been practicing it all season.

Of course, the game is technically a tie, but that’s not how the Harvard Crimson saw it.  Hence, the title of the documentary.  Even knowing the outcome ahead of time (after all, it’s in the title!), the story is suspenseful and the former players give it heart and sometimes a little bit of menace.  I watched it with a Harvard grad, so he had a little more invested than a Hawkeye.  If you don’t have a Harvard or Yale grad handy, you might enjoy it anyway.

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3 responses to ““Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29”

  1. “Yet the interviews, interspersed with game footage, interweave the politics of the Vietnam War . . .”

    Upon further reflection, my initial joy at watching Harvard “beat” Yale might have rose-colored the rest of the film. I think a lot of the buildup in the first half, particularly the Vietnam stuff, seems extraneous in hindsight, because the war didn’t really give the game any extra meaning. It seems like they were trying to make this out to be the 1980 Miracle on Ice (see “Miracle” — we win the Cold War!) or the 1995 Rugby World Cup (see “Invictus” — we reconciled post-apartheid!), where the game symbolized something much greater. But that’s not what was really going on when Harvard beat Yale in 1968. Both schools were filled with the same rich kids who protested the same war for the same reasons. There was no difference between Harvard and Yale except location. It’s not like one side stood for something unique.

    I’ll admit, though, that this is a pretty chippy critique. All in all, I was happy with the movie and would recommend it, if for no other reason than the comeback it depicts is mind-boggling, no-way-did-that-actually-happen.

    Also, as my freshman year t-shirt said, Yuck Fale.

    • For me, the discussion of the Vietnam War mostly served to set the “stage” of the game. You’re right that it didn’t have any significant bearing on the game — I supposed it would be like people talking about a football game in fall 2001, putting it against the backdrop of 9/11.

  2. Also, the phrase “hapless Yale cheerleaders” is redundant.

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