Monday, June 2, 2014

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 (2008)

Quotes like that one at the top of this
movie poster are probably what led to
my ultimate feelings about this one...

Director: Kevin Rafferty

This documentary was a tad disappointing.

I'll watch a sports documentary about damn near anything. In watching nearly every one of ESPN's extraordinary 30 for 30 series, I've enjoyed tales about burnt-out football prodigies, trans-gendered tennis players, coked out NASCAR drivers, and plenty of other odd topics related to athletic endeavors. Because of my passion for the general topic, I was excited to see a well-received film on something I knew nothing about - an apparently epic football game played in 1968 between two long-time rivals of the Ivy League - Yale and Harvard. The movie was lauded when it came out in 2008, and I'd had it floating around my Netflix queue since around that time. Maybe 6 years of anticipation did the film a slight disservice.

The story of the game is well told. The contest is presented with chronologically-ordered clips of the pivotal plays, from the kick off to the final gun. Between the plays are interviews with various players from both teams, each giving his recollections and reminiscences about a game that was exceptional to those who cared.

And this is the problem for me. I felt that by the end, I should have cared more. But I didn't.

The original TV footage of the game is pretty cool to see.
It reminded me of the pre-HD days of my youth.
Yes, it was an exciting game in which an underdog (in this case, Harvard) came back from a major deficit to upset one of the better football teams in the country. However, Yale was not among the absolute elite in the nation. They were ranked #16 at the time. Nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but they weren't exactly the 1960s Boston Celtics. And Harvard wasn't a team of scrubs. Though they weren't ranked as highly as Yale, they were an undefeated team with some talented players. This sapped the game of a bit of drama for me.

Another expectation I had that went unmet was that the game symbolized some grander commentary about U.S. society at the time. Through the player interviews, we do get some sense of how the contrasting views of the Vietnam war and anti-government sentiment affected some of the players and their interactions with their teammates and classmates, but the game wasn't really the grand analogy for American society that I was expecting.

The men involved in the game, including a very young Tommy Lee Jones (who comes off as the ultimate curmudgeon in his interviews), have some personality. Some are amiable blue collar types, while others are self-important windbags. This certainly helps maintain some magnetism. But there weren't any classically memorable storytellers in the group, which would have helped.

A good sports documentary, but nothing approaching the very best the genre has to offer. I have to feel that there are much more compelling sports tales to be told, with more intriguing personalities and a stronger connection to society as a whole.