We like to pretend that no such thing as a ruling class has ever darkened an American shore or danced by the light of an American moon,” writer Lewis Lapham says in his on-screen introduction to John Kirby’s 2005 The American Ruling Class, a cleverly contrived non-fiction film that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival that same year but was too challenging to get a regular commercial release. It just recently became widely available as a DVD supplement in the current issue of Moving Pictures magazine. But Lapham’s provocative words resonated during Film Forum’s screening of the doc Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.
No less contrived than Kirby’s film, Harvard Beats Yale centers on an event that took place five years after the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated: when his alma mater, Harvard University, played a semi-legendary Ivy League football game pitting the Harvard Crimson against the Yale Bulldogs. That Nov. 23, 1968 contest throws filmmaker Kevin Rafferty a potentially great subject. Rafferty catches it, runs with it and then fumbles.
The full title Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 comes from the post-game headline of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper that immediately mythologized the event as part of Ivy League lore. More than football, the match-up was a tournament of American elites. That’s what commends it to Rafferty’s attention and to our own. Rafferty’s film grabs interest as a rare examination of how class promotes itself in American institutions and in popular memory. As Lapham uncannily predicted: “Our wish to preserve the illusion of a classless society lends itself to the telling of a story.” And while Kirby constructed a story that was also a clever contemporary social analysis, Rafferty’s story succumbs to sentiment. It hides political-economic-cultural ideology in wistfulness, and that’s where it goes wrong.
Looking back on their college days, the players—now in their sixties—present a gallery of varied portraits: some heavyset, wrinkled, bespectacled, bald. Yet their memories rejuvenate them. They physically reflect how their experience of that most tumultuous decade (student protest, the Pill) has settled into today’s nostalgia, wariness and, occasionally, personal wisdom. Each man has moved past the political, academic and patriotic concerns of his youth, just as they advanced beyond the trauma of the 1960s political assassinations. It’s a unique perspective on the privileges of education and class. Bringing it all down to football reinterprets the game as scrimmage among men with shared ambitions, status and intellect.
More than sportsmanship is on display given the obvious similarities of the interviewees—all middle-class, relatively articulate and living in comfortable-looking homes. Through an Obama-style post-racial elision, the Vietnam War is emphasized as the only possible distinction among these teammates (no mention of fraternities). Rafferty limits his reportage to the reminiscences of Harvard and Yale’s white players. The Crimson’s black halfback Calvin Hill is mentioned several times and seen in archival game footage, but he’s never interviewed—a phantom presence. His absence deconstructs this fable of Ivy League brotherhood into a ruling-class mystery.
Rafferty begins with several players citing ethnic and working-class backgrounds; but unlike Adam Yauch’s superlative Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot, there’s no evidence of cultural difference; their shared goals are merely assumed and their post-college achievements left unspecified. Vietnam War talk gets close to revelation: Yale safety J.P. Goldsmith recalls, “It was the ’60s. Wall Street [conservatives] vs. On-Strike, Shut-It-Down [radicals]—except on Saturday when we came together to watch Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling work their magic.” Even Harvard’s middle guard Alex MacLean, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, says: “We put all that aside.” Yet the fact that Yale’s captain and quarterback Dowling was a 24-year-old Vietnam veteran begs for a deeper discussion of how sportsman parity was achieved. Dowling’s still-shaken reflections rattle Rafferty’s insistence on bonhomie.
When Goldsmith describes the ’60s as: “From the Gulf of Tonkin to Nixon resigning—everybody had a mad-on”; and when Tommy Lee Jones remembers, “Ideas were flying around like bullets,” you have to wonder what ideas he’s talking about. Rafferty evokes an era of political turmoil that could be instructive for the current period when ideologies and advantages get confused. One player ironically recalls, “In the spirit of ’68 we took over the team [from Harvard’s aloof coach].” But viewers need to know the same things Oliver Stone’s W. and Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd investigated—what practical lessons did these men take into the non-academic world? How did they create the world we live in? Does Harvard and Yale merely bequeath sportsmanship—or a tradition of entitlement?
In Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, the memorable football-game climax demonstrated how war was a social leveler—privileged doctors played alongside grunts and civilian hierarchies were exposed. But Rafferty’s glorified Ivy League sports memories indulge a patrician sense of skilled specialization and select combat. An interesting conflict occurs between Dowling and defensive captain Mike Bouscaren concerning their recollections of a referee’s decisive call. This fleeting tension unavoidably rouses what Lapham called “questions [that] touch on the character of the American ruling class.”
Rafferty’s play-by-play structure compromises the depth of his subject, as he attempts to make history entertaining. The antique green-toned TV footage is fascinatingly archaic, but the B&W inter-titles reveal a weak attempt at supplying drama (unlike Yauch’s Gunnin’, which pointed toward an exhilarating new view of sports as anthropology). Rafferty’s compromise is understandably affectionate, but it winds up an unwitting promotion of aristocracy.
Some brief allusions to Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury (which began as a Yale Daily News feature in September 1968) help to puncture this hagiography, even though Bouscaren finds the cartoons “off point. They even tended to make fun of us.” But Trudeau also immortalized the players, the right way. Trudeau’s humor—its affectionate satire of class and hubris—has its equivalent in the skits, musical numbers and unforgettably revealing interviews of The American Ruling Class. Kirby’s little-seen gem provides what’s missing when Rafferty’s film goes off-point.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Directed by Kevin Rafferty, at Film Forum, Running Time: 105 min.
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