Friday, January 2, 2009

Film Review: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Directed by Kevin Rafferty
Released November 19, 2008

I’m from Massachusetts. I can appreciate a surprise win by an underdog Boston sports team. Regardless of where you’re from, the 2004 Red Sox World Series win was certainly a memorable event. The significance of the 1968 Harvard versus Yale football game, however, is arguable. Director Kevin Rafferty hardly makes a compelling case for it in his new documentary, “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

Non-fiction films have a vastly different agenda from fiction films, but there are certain criteria necessary for a good documentary. Some kind of intriguing event is key, a controversy is always a plus, and new, heretofore unseen evidence can provide a real kicker. A conclusion is also nice. The final game between two undefeated Ivy League sports teams might be memorable to some, and realistically sparked Rafferty’s interest as a valid documentary subject, since he was in the stands during the game as a Harvard student. What’s missing from the movie, and what he fails to produce, is anything to supplement or explain this unexpected comeback. True sports fans might enjoy watching snippets of the game, but the commentary is entirely unmoving.

A movie about sports should focus on sports. It is more often than not merely a bunch of sixty-year-olds struggling to recall what exactly was going on during the fateful 1968 game, but even more crucially, the questions posed by Rafferty are desperately and unsubtly aimed at sparking celebrity name recognition. One former Yale player notes in passing that his girlfriend at the time was Meryl Streep, and a whole minute is devoted to zooming on a photograph to prove that yes, in fact this is Meryl Streep when she was younger. Another Yale alumnus recalls that George W. Bush was once his roommate, a fact that’s amusing but completely irrelevant to the story. Tommy Lee Jones, who pauses dramatically for minutes at a time and wears the gravest expression on his face, is the only interview subject who seems put off by Rafferty’s celebrity worship and is confused by Rafferty’s probing questions about this then-roommate Al Gore.

The movie does succeed with one shout-out to a famous person – “Doonesbury” comic creator Garry Trudeau. Though all of the former football players have little, if anything, to say about him in their current commentary, they explain that the Yale football team was the basis for Trudeau’s early strips. That concept helps to shed more light on the nature of the team and its players. Otherwise, Rafferty’s questions are unfocused and off-topic. The filming and particularly the editing are hopelessly amateurish, and this film should definitely not have been longer than an hour and a half (105 minutes is far too long). Rafferty chooses to splice in quotes and slow down footage to dramatically reshape an event which requires no editing. Watching the game on an ESPN Classic channel might be fine, but this just isn’t an appropriate subject for a film.

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