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Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

Crimson Tie

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

One can be forgiven for not counting The Game -- the annual college football contest between the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Bulldogs -- among 1968’s most memorable events. During a year that witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the election of Richard Nixon and the escalation of Vietnam War protests, even one of the most exciting finishes in sports history -- Harvard, an apparently hopeless underdog against undefeated Yale, scored an unthinkable 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn the now-famous tie -- might understandably be overlooked.

Yet director Kevin Rafferty (1982’s The Atomic Café) has made it the focus of his new documentary, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (the title is taken from the celebratory headline in the Harvard student newspaper), combining grainy footage of The Game and interviews with the men who played it. In turn, the players provide absorbing commentary on everything from porous defensive schemes and old gridiron grudges to the then-stormy political climates at two of the nation’s most celebrated universities.

One of the virtues of the film is that it allows players from both sides to tell the story of the game, and that tumultuous year, without making any of them out to be larger than the world they describe. (Rafferty, a Harvard graduate, is also a first cousin to Yale alum George W. Bush.) While individual personalities emerge, the director’s cast of colorful (though predominantly white) narrators remains largely obscure save for the most famous of the lot, Harvard tackle Tommy Lee Jones and Yale quarterback Brian Dowling, the inspiration for the B.D. character in Eli alum Garry Trudeau’s "Doonesbury".

There are game-day heroes here but no villains, really, unless you count former Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, who candidly acknowledges attempting to injure opposing players but compliments the refs for calling him on it. Harvard Beats Yale isn’t about choosing sides -- it’s surprisingly even-handed -- so much as it is an enthralling, sometimes wistful reflection on a period of massive social upheaval and one of college football’s greatest contests. As its gloriously unlikely finish draws near, Harvard passing for a two-point conversion on the afternoon’s final play, Rafferty focuses more on the game, which would be captivating to anyone with even a passing interest in sport.

For those lacking such interest, the memories the game evokes in its stars, now well into middle age but clearly moved when recalling that November’s consummation of one of America’s oldest sports rivalries, weave a narrative that transcends football.

There is heartbreak and ecstasy in the end, as there must be when one team celebrates and the other looks on in defeat. And though there may not have been a clear-cut victor here, for members of Yale’s finest team ever, who celebrated at halftime in anticipation of a win at Harvard’s expense, there has never been a more crushing loss.