F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Princeton dropout who immortalized Ivy League glamour in his fiction, often wrote about the "golden moment" when opportunity meets passion and inspiration. In Harvard Beats Yale 29- 29, a clutch of eloquent interviews makes clear that for nearly every member of the Harvard football team, tying heavily favored Yale in 1968 was their golden moment. Forty years later, it became one for filmmaker Kevin Rafferty, too.
Rafferty, who will appear at the Charles Theatre at 6:50 tonight to discuss the film, has crafted a variety of entertaining, provocative, even trailblazing documentaries (The Atomic Caf e, Blood in the Face, Feed). But Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is better. It makes a movie lover feel the way a devoted reader does when dipping into a magnum opus: This is the work the author was meant to create.
A mysterious serendipity, even karma, entered the movie's genesis, with roots deep in Rafferty's personal history. As he writes in the ebullient introduction to his forthcoming book of the same name, he was a black sheep in a line of Raffertys who attended Andover and then Yale. After a rocky Andover record and a year at a prep school in Dorset, England, he got into Yale on his second try, then decided to flout tradition and attend Harvard.
Cut to 2006: His daughter Madeleine chooses Yale, and her acceptance letter sends his college years flooding back to him. He gets an inkling that this game of games, which he watched on the Harvard side of Harvard Stadium on Nov. 23, 1968, might be the perfect idea for a new movie. "What's the cliche?" he asks over the phone. " 'If you remember the '60s, you weren't there.' Well, I remember some things. I remember being tear-gassed in Chicago. And I remember being at the game and not being able to believe what I was seeing."
In the finished film, the exuberance and the schisms of '60s are conjoined. In all 61 interviews with Yale and Harvard players, he asked, "The '60s mean different things to many people; what did they mean to you in your college years?"
It was reminiscent of questions he had posed six years before to one of his first cousins: George W. Bush. ("My mother was Barbara Bush's older sister.") Bush wasn't a cheerleader at Yale: "That's a myth that's gotten into popular culture." (Bush was head cheerleader at Andover and used his megaphone to introduce his cousin when Rafferty played varsity football) But Bush was an ardent fan of the Yale team, and in the winter of 2000, during the New Hampshire primary campaign, Rafferty interviewed him "about his days at Yale and how they had formed his world view. His position was that the 'heaviness' of the '60s had not arrived at the Yale campus by the time he graduated in 1968."
Rafferty doesn't think his movie overdoes the contrast between the blue bloods of Yale and the local heroes and proletariat underdogs of Harvard. "When I look at the map of where I did the interviews, a third of the Harvard team still lives close to where they grew up, not far from Harvard Stadium. Nobody had expected them to do anything because hardly anyone had played varsity. They'd been on the junior varsity - or in Vietnam! But they had developed good friendships. They knew it was their turn to play, and they all stepped up.
"The Yale team was the last hurrah of an old era. They were looking backward at the glory days of Yale being this place of popular fiction, full of guys wearing sweaters with a big Y on them." One Yalie who tried to modernize Yale culture was Garry Trudeau, who satirized the team in his college comic strip, Bull Tales, which morphed into Doonesbury.
Rafferty didn't want to distract the audience from the game with celebrities, such as Ted Kennedy, who watched from the stands. It was enough to note that Yale fullback Bob Levin dated Meryl Streep and that Tommy Lee Jones played for the Harvard team. In the film, Jones often retreats into some hypnotic mystic state before emerging with vivid descriptions such as, "People's lives were changing by the minute. Ideas were flying around like bullets."
Jones is never funnier than when he's trying to explain why his roommate, Al Gore, was a funny guy. (Gore figured out how to play "Dixie" on his newfangled touch-tone phone and helped Jones cook a turkey in a fireplace.) One of Rafferty's few regrets is that he didn't clarify that Jones was an All-Ivy League guard and the only returning starter on Harvard's offensive line.
The "most gratifying night" of Rafferty's filmmaking career came on the eve of the 2008 Harvard-Yale game, when Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 played to a sold-out Brattle Theatre audience in Cambridge, Mass., that included many interviewees and their wives. Rafferty took the stage with Trudeau and the two captains, Harvard's Vic Gatto and Yale's Brian Dowling, who thanked the director for putting him "in a movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep."
"It got a standing O afterward," Rafferty recalls. In fact, "it got a standing O before."