Doc of the Day: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 05, 2012

It’s the most legendary Ivy League game ever. The men who played it reminisce about that fateful day, and the events surrounding it.

Poster courtesy of Movie Goods.

Dir. Kevin Rafferty, 2008, 105 min

I’ve always been amused at the idea that sports have some sort of social value. The men in this documentary all talk up how, back in the sixties, college football allowed them to overlook their political differences for a while. I find that more sad than inspiring. Of all the things we would settle on to find common ground, it’s the completely meaningless? Hey, don’t get hostile; even this movie admits that sports don’t actually mean anything and that the famous game which this movie is about wasn’t really important at all. College athletics in particular are a castle of sand, and all it takes is one sex scandal to tear down our pretenses and lay bare how hollow the system is (until people ignore their way into forgetting it, of course).

So it would take a lot to get me invested in a documentary about a football game, even one as pitched and twisty as the 1968 contest between Harvard and Yale. For a while, I thought that this movie had solved that puzzle and found a way to make me care, but ultimately I just can’t give a shit which team of preppies proves themselves athletically superior to the other. Or in this case, how two teams of preppies came to find themselves evenly matched. The idea is that Harvard “won” (hence the title) since Yale was more heavily favored and they were losing for most of the game, but whatever. You can’t really make me see Harvard as an underdog in any circumstance.

The conceit that Harvard Beats Yale uses is to set the game in its proper historical context. Players from both teams recollect the political situation of the time, which was rather heated due to controversy over the War in Vietnam. The conversations often wander to other topics, such as sex, university life, and the future president and vice president who were attending the two schools at the time. Throughout the first half of the film, these interviews are interspersed with footage of the famous game. It was here that I thought I could actually care about the proceedings. It looked like this was a movie not just about a game but about capturing a certain moment in history, and I was on board.

But after the first half, the doc devotes all attention firmly to the game, and it was here that the doc lost me. I just can’t keep up with all the player maneuvers and clashes. I don’t really grasp the intricacies of football, and I had pretty much no idea what was happening, and got only the barest hint of how any particular play was special. This isn’t like When We Were Kings, since boxing is pretty easy to understand (two guys punch each other until one can’t punch anymore), and since that film actually lent weight to its subject bout. While that doc felt like it was about something important, this one can’t make itself about more than a curiosity.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 starts out promising, but devolves into analytical play-by-play that couldn’t hold my interest. I think my prejudice here is pretty bare, and if you’re into this stuff, you’ll most likely be way more invested than I was. I think I can’t care about sports because I’m interested in humanity, and sports are essentially people forgoing their humanity for a while. That’s why there’s soul in a man talking about his experiences in Vietnam. After that, what does it matter how he played as a quarterback?

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

Leave Your Comment

%d bloggers like this: