An accomplished generational anecdote, Kevin Rafferty’s documentary of a doozie of an Ivy League football faceoff in November 1968 keeps it simple; aside from a few vintage photos, there’s nothing to interrupt the contemporary reminiscences of the participants except fixed-camera footage of the game itself in living, faded color. A mix of school legacies and blue-collar families’ first-time collegians, the 60-year-old ex-athletes cast their exploits in more wry and qualified terms than alums of Ole Miss or Notre Dame might, but not by much. Though both teams had perfect records entering their annual clash, the favored Yalies, who were expected to ride undefeated-since-seventh-grade quarterback Brian “God” Dowling (the model for B.D. in undergrad Garry Trudeau’s nascent Doonesbury comic) to a climactic win at Harvard Stadium, still credit themselves with providing inspiration to a community of scholars—the memory of the university prez leading a “Fuck Princeton” cheer being prime evidence. The more peripherally celebrated Harvard squad, whose solidly antiwar players ranged from a Vietnam vet to a Students for a Democratic Society member, forged team unity without much help from their serenely stuffy coach, but spotted Yale a 22-0 second-quarter lead before the worm turned.
Rafferty spoons out the period details like the dawn of freely available birth control and forays into campus activism, but though his subject still feels mostly like “just a football game,” the outlandish Harvard comeback amid the Yale band’s taunting rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club theme is a foolproof climax, seeming predestined not only by the film’s spoiler title but the testimony of the deflated Bulldogs and the euphoric Crimson. The players’ smarts and honesty is a non-fan’s salvation; Harvard guard Tommy Lee Jones—yes, that one—is merely part of a confident ensemble memoir here. (“Ideas were flying around like bullets,” Jones ventures about the era, and his stony gaze dares interviewer Rafferty to judge his tale of roommate Al Gore learning to play “Dixie” on a touchtone phone unfunny.) Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 paints college football not as epochal warfare but as a pastime with room for serendipity. Falling on a game-changing fumble, a Crimson back recollects, “I just couldn’t believe how simple it was.”