Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries. In this early edition of Doc Soup, he is inspired by the upcoming Super Bowl to think about a recent film about — you guessed it — football.

Tom RostonWhen I was twelve, my older brother and I had an argument, as brothers do. I was taking the side that sports were important and he was saying that science was more important. Like I said, he was older, and you can see which side he took, so you can guess who won that discussion. But on the eve of Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, I’d like to submit a new bit of evidence to support my side: the documentary, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

The film made some noise on the festival circuit and it got some glowing reviews, but it’s now being distributed by Kino at just a smattering of art houses across the country without much fanfare, and I think that’s a shame. In the film, director Kevin Rafferty tells the story of one football game between the two Ivy League universities that took place in 1968. The title tells the end result, but it suggests much more. Rafferty uses the most simple intercutting between talking heads and gloriously grainy vintage shots of said game — and I found it utterly breathtaking.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 poster Rafferty is an interesting guy: he made his biggest splash with 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, the doc that compiled U.S. propaganda films from the 1940s and1950s about the atomic bomb. Since then, he’s directed a few other films I hadn’t heard of (and he worked as the cameraman on Michael Moore’s Roger and Me and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room). He went to Harvard himself — and he also happens to be a cousin of former President George W. Bush, who was at Yale in 1968.

But back to the film: It is much more than middle age guys just talking about their past glory; it’s about memory and loss and the comradeship between athletes, and also very much about that critical era in our history. There are some recognizable personalities (Al Gore, Meryl Streep) discussed, and actor Tommy Lee Jones provides starchy commentary as a former Harvard football player.
I don’t know of any other sports documentaries that are as moving and meaningful as this one. If you know of one, tell me about it. But I have to say, this film makes a strong argument that a game can sometimes be more than just a game.

What drives the film along are the compelling personalities of the players and, of course, the story of one of the most incredible games ever played. Rafferty shows a good deal of the game, which I think both sports fans and even non-fans will love. It’s so dramatic; I can’t imagine this Sunday’s game could come close. Of course it can’t — with all the sponsors and big money glitz drowning out the contest — how could the “big game” compete? So, yes, enjoy the game this Sunday, but if you want to experience football at its best — delivered seamlessly by an expert documentarian — check out Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

You can see where and when Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is playing here.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen