Friday, June 12, 2009
"Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" (opening June 12 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) is a documentary for a very specialized audience. At the end of the film there's a mention for the book version of "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" and in all honesty that might be a better format for this particular story.
Filmmaker Kevin Rafferty made a clever documentary early in his career called "The Atomic Café" that relied on 1940s and 1950s U.S. government created propaganda/educational films designed to reassure folks that if a bomb was dropped we'd all be okay. For that film he had tons of archival footage and he wove it together in a sly and disturbing manner. For his latest film, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," he have very little archival material and instead has to rely on a lot of talking heads to recount an event that is probably only of interest to a narrow range of filmgoers.
The film focuses on one game – okay a pretty amazing game -- in 1968 between longtime Ivy League rivals. Beyond the game on the field, Rafferty explores the turmoil going on in the country regarding the Vietnam War and how some of that spilled onto the Ivy League campuses. Football seemed to unite an oddly diverse group of people – rich kids, hippies, anti-war activists. And at this moment in time Tommy Lee Jones was playing at Harvard where he was friends with Tommy Lee Jones; and at Yale Meryl Streep was dating one of the players and Gary Trudeau was working at the school paper.
Rafferty keeps his film entertaining and moving quickly yet the interviews are so blandly even badly shot and the archival material wears so thin that I think this would all play out better in book form. The funniest moment is when Tommy Lee Jones reveals that Al Gore could be fun and Rafferty asks for an example. Jones pauses for a moment and then explains that Gore learned to play Dixie on the new touch tone phones and that was pretty funny.
"Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" (unrated) does a decent job of capturing a moment in time. It uses the football game as a catalyst to explore other things but this time out Rafferty has less success spinning a social and cultural commentary. The game is wild and intense but having it dragged out with all the reminisces doesn't make it play out in the most exciting manner. Rafferty just doesn't seem to have the drive and vision that fueled "The Atomic Café" at work here.
Companion viewing: "The Atomic Café," "Horsefeathers," "Berkeley in the Sixties"