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On Movies: 'Harvard' wins, but 'Tyson' is far from a knockout

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - 1968 was a cataclysmic year for America, a year of assassinations, riots, a tragically escalating Asian war and bloody chaos at a national political convention. A football game played that year would seem to be of minimal interest today, particularly one in the Ivy League, not known for its gridiron juggernauts. But documentarian Kevin Rafferty (“The Atomic Café”) has done a wonderful job of resurrecting the cliff-hanging, season-ending Harvard-Yale game of 1968. Also, without losing the considerable drama of the game itself, he has given it historical significance, or at least historical resonance.

The story is told in “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” a funny and insightful documentary whose title echoes one of the best newspaper headlines in American history, the one in the Harvard Crimson that heralded Harvard’s astonishing last-minute comeback from 16 points down to tie its traditional Ivy League rival.

Harvard and Yale were both undefeated that year, but Yale was clearly the superior squad. Ivy League schools very rarely are ranked in the top 20, but Yale was 16th in the nation. Yale quarterback Brian Dowling hadn’t lost a game he started since the sixth grade, and the principal running back for Yale was Calvin Hill, who would go on to star for the Dallas Cowboys. The exploits of the football team, and its seemingly invincible leader “B.D.,” were celebrated and satirized in the Yale Daily News by Garry Trudeau in a cartoon that would evolve into “Doonesbury.”

The Yalies seem to tend toward towering members of the Northeastern aristocracy. The Harvard players seemed to be smaller and many of them were scrappy blue-collar kids on scholarship. A typical Harvard player was an undersized but spunky offensive lineman named Tommy Lee Jones, whose future stardom lay far from the gridiron. (His roommate, by the way, was Al Gore; a Yale player would room with George W. Bush.)

Almost 40 years later, Rafferty tracked down several dozen members of the two teams and assembled their reminiscences skillfully into a narrative. In the early parts of the film, the men talk about the societal context of the time. There was a considerable amount of student unrest at both schools over the war in Vietnam and civil rights. Strikingly, Harvard’s team included both a Vietnam veteran and a member of Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war protest group. But in any case most of the players on both teams opposed the war, and there was little internal tension on either team, at least not over politics.

In the second half of the movie, Rafferty increasingly focuses on the football game, which was much more straightforward than the multiple-offense spread-formation college games of today, and highly enjoyable, featuring breakaway gallops off tackle and quick passes across the middle. As the game gets deep into the second half, with Harvard losing badly, two figures emerge from the pack: for Harvard, a hero, second string quarterback Frank Champi, with a strong arm but very little experience, and for Yale, a villain, linebacker Mike Bouscaren, who openly admits that, on a couple of occasions, he was trying to physically injure a player on the opposing team. Like a character in a Greek drama, the hubristic Bouscaren seems destined to overreach himself at some crucial point and be punished by Fate for his presumption.

There are 42 seconds on the game clock and Harvard is losing by 16 points when its final surge begins. By now, the war in Vietnam and the bloodshed in the streets of Chicago at the Democratic convention are completely forgotten as the game plays itself out. Sometimes, at their best, sporting events combine surprise with inevitability in the manner of the best dramatic and narrative art, and that’s what happens at the climax of “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

Interviewed as graying, balding, paunchy men a few years from Social Security, several of those who played in the Harvard-Yale battle of 1968 dismiss it with the words, “It was only a game.” Maybe, but the details of what they say was only a game seem to have stuck in their memories pretty well lo these forty years.

Opens Friday, June 12.


The promotional material for director James Toback’s “Tyson” describes it as “a modern day version of classic Greek tragedy,” and for a while at least this documentary about the rise and fall and rise and fall of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson seems headed in that direction.

Tyson speaks directly into the camera, in between scenes of explosive knockouts and contentious public appearances. And it’s hard not to be fascinated by this son of the New York ghetto who was saved from a short life of violent crime by boxing in general and by patriarchal trainer Cus d’Amato in particular. Tyson, on the whole, speaks softly and articulately as he describes the internal fire that drives him to visualize pumping his fist through another man’s head as he pummels him into submission.

But then, about halfway through this movie of an hour and a half, you get tired of listening to this monomaniacal man talk about himself. When he starts to court our sympathy by talking about his relationships with women, particularly actress Robin Givens and the former beauty queen he was convicted of raping, you notice that he uses the same words about making love that he does about prizefighting – in both arenas, its all about dominance and being overpowering. And when he denies the rape charge, he has so strongly indicted himself that it is virtually impossible to believe him. Which makes you wonder whether you can believe a word he has said at all.

Opens Friday, June 12.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.