Every fall, Harvard’s football team plays against Yale’s in a match known as The Game. The words are always capitalized to underscore the epic nature of the annual face-off between the Ivy League giants.

The stakes at this match are always high, but in 1968, they were stratospheric: both teams walked onto the field undefeated for the first time in fifty-nine years, and they did so against the backdrop of intense political upheaval, some of which had even managed to invade the stolid campuses. As if to reflect the times, the game was just as wildly unpredictable as the real world: Harvard trailed far behind the entire game, and people were already leaving the stands when an improbable series of events led to Harvard scoring sixteen points in the final forty-two seconds. Technically this brought the game to a tie, but the comeback was so resounding that Harvard was the clear winner.

That is, unless you ask a Yale man. (And they were all men in those days — Yale didn’t open its admissions to women until the month of this game.)

Director Kevin Rafferty, a Harvard man himself, decided to find as many of the players that day as he could, and ask them to reminisce on film about the match and their lives at the time. The result is Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, an oddly suspenseful and compelling film — odd, given that we know the outcome from the beginning, and so compelling that even people who don’t care about sports (like me) will think it time well spent.

It’s not just the drama inherent in a last-minute comeback. It’s really in the way the teams reflected the times. For example, a Vietnam vet was teammates with an active member of SDS. Yale player JP Goldsmith, in a vivid monologue, recalls what he was doing when Bobby Kennedy was shot, among other events, and recalls the turmoil of the times. “But every Saturday in the fall,” he says, “everybody called a truce” in order to watch their star players work their magic.

Another point of interest are the glimpses we get of Al Gore (Harvard) and George W. Bush (Yale), who had friends and roommates on the team. Bush is remembered as a drinker (no surprise there), and Rafferty asks Gore’s former roomie, Tommy Lee Jones, to describe the man. “He was funny,” says Jones. In what way? Jones searches his memory as if trying to find examples that would not be politically damaging to Gore. (The interview was filmed in 2007.) “He learned to play Dixie on the telephone,” he offers. “One year we tried to cook a turkey in the fireplace.”

That Al Gore — such a card! Also not so surprising.

But I’ll bet you don’t know who Meryl Streep was dating in 1968. That will surprise you for sure.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 opens today at the Lumiere theater; director in person at the evening screenings that day. Tickets here.

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  • james o. clifford

    I read Sam Whiting’s extensive piece in the Chron. How about reviewing movies that aren’t commented on by MSM? Same for books. Do self-published works, a whole new field. If you are going to do movies like Harvard-Yale do a tackle eligible and surprise everyone. Ask questions no one else would ask – like why does South Boston and much of the nation have to live with decisions made by Ivy League grads?