At the outset of Harvard Beats Yale 29-29—a new documentary about a football game that happened 41 years ago—the reminiscing players build up the game to the level of epic myth: "You just got the feeling that the universe had shifted somehow," one recalls. Another characterizes it all as a "slow-motion nightmare," while another adds, "It wasn't painful. It was too strange to be painful."
When the undefeated Harvard and the similarly undefeated Yale played each other in 1968, "There was never any doubt about what the outcome was gonna be," as one former Yale player remembers. "It was just a question of by what margin we would win." What ended up occurring was anything but.
At first, Harvard Beats Yale sounds like it'd be insufferable for anyone who doesn't love (A) football, or (B) privileged old white dudes reliving their glory days. ("Actually, I was dating Meryl Streep at the time..." remembers one former fullback, and the phrase "quintessential collegiate experience" is fondly uttered, too.) Thankfully, director Kevin Rafferty tells an unexpectedly engaging story: Between plentiful highlights from the nail-biting game, Rafferty lets the players talk about not only college football, but everything around it—from the incendiary politics of the late '60s to what it was like to have Al Gore for a roommate. ("We had a lot of fun. We probably had too much fun," former Harvard football player Tommy Lee Jones angrily and unconvincingly growls about Gore. Yalies' memories are better: "There's a picture of him which I may have a copy of," recalls a former Yale tackle and roommate of George W. Bush. "Y'know, hanging from the goalposts in Princeton, in November 1967, in a probably inebriated state.")
While Harvard Beats Yale sometimes feels like an extended, self-mythologizing bullshit session between a bunch of old jocks, it's an insightful and charming bullshit session—and one that contains glimpses of nostalgia, bitterness, and decades-old elation and sadness. Between the grainy game footage and the time-burnished reminiscences of now-puffy jocks, Harvard Beats Yale ends up being more than the sum of its parts.