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On Sunday, the Pittsburg Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals will meet for their first Super Bowl. But the oldest football rivalry is between Harvard and Yale, known simply as The Game, with capital letters. The two schools have played 125 times since 1875, but their most famous game happened four decades ago in 1968, a turbulent year that saw political assassinations, the siege of Chicago and the election of Richard Nixon. A new movie by Kevin Rafferty called "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" documents that game and how it fits into the times that surrounded it. Our critic-at-large John Powers says this movie will win you over whether you care about football or not.

JOHN POWERS: When the Pittsburgh Steelers meet the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII, there's one result you can bet on safely: People will be watching in staggering numbers. Super Sunday has become America's favorite unofficial national holiday, a pretext for parties, an occasion for rolling out expensive commercials and a confirmation that football is our great national pastime. It's been so since the 1960s, when the National Football League not only took off, but the game itself took on a super-charged social resonance. With its regimented violence, its proto-military uniforms and its warlike vocabulary - linebackers began "blitzing" - football became a flashpoint in the battle between the straights and the counter-culture. I still remember fighting with those who insisted that my love for the game was tantamount to endorsing the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese villagers.

The '60s culture wars form the background of the most enjoyable gridiron movie I've ever seen, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," which gets its startling title from a headline in the Harvard newspaper. Made by Kevin Rafferty, this wonderful documentary takes you inside one of the most famous of all college football games: the 1968 showdown between the Harvard Crimson, a scrappy group of overachievers, and the heavily favored Yale squad, the last Ivy League team that anybody ever took seriously. Not only did Yale feature Calvin Hill, who would go on to star for the Dallas Cowboys, but they were quarterbacked by Brian Dowling, a quasi-mythic figure who was both spoken of as God on the Yale campus and, less flatteringly, inspired Gary Trudeau to create the figure of BD in Doonesbury.

Having seen The Game as a Harvard undergrad, Rafferty approaches his story with admirable straightforwardness. He simply intercuts between footage of The Game and funny, rueful, reflective interviews with those who played it. Although The Game itself was no thing of beauty, it built to one of the most exciting finales of all time. With only 73 seconds left, the Crimsons still trailed 29 to 13. What followed was a series of lucky plays, disputed calls, two-point conversions and idiotic blunders, a confluence of events so extraordinary that, to this day, everyone involved feels that they entered some vast collective dream. For Harvard's Rick Frisbie, the dream was magnificent, more exciting, he says, than sex. For Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, a man of ferocious honesty, things were more nightmarish. Here, he talks about the play where he deliberately tried to injure the Harvard quarterback, Frank Champi.

(Soundbite of documentary "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29")

Mr. MIKE BOUSCAREN (Former Linebacker, Yale University Bulldogs): I just figured that this guy was too dangerous to stay on the field anymore and it was my job to put him out. So, again, you know, trying to make things happen, if you try too hard, they're not going to happen. But I realized that here's my shot to get at him, because when you're a linebacker, you don't have too many chances to put a quarterback out of the game. And he went down before I got to him, and when I hit him, I got him on the facemask instead of between the facemask and the top of the helmet, which I was aiming for with a chop. I thought that would do it, but I missed, and of course, the referees were all over it as he's going down and I got the flag.

POWERS: As you can tell from such a confession, what makes "Harvard Beats Yale" memorable is the way Rafferty pulls away the players' facemasks and shows their humanity. The movie is filled with terrific characters, from Yale's cheery J.P. Goldsmith - who views the whole game through a scrim of ironic self-awareness - to Pat Conway, a Vietnam vet - he'd fought at Khe Sanh before joining the Harvard team - who played side-by-side with anti-war organizers.

These were, of course, elite universities, and while one Yale player recalls his pal George W. Bush dangling drunkenly from the goalposts after the team beat Princeton, Harvard tackle Tommy Lee Jones - yes, that Tommy Lee Jones - tells us about his roommate Al Gore playing "Dixie" on the touch-tone phone. Even the young Meryl Streep makes a brief appearance, putting up anti-war material with her football-player boyfriend, much to the disapproval of Brian Dowling, who was all about the game.

Of course, a game is never just a game. Rafferty skillfully uses this collection of characters to offer us a fascinating piece of social history. Where Yale in 1968 was comparatively conservative - Young Americans for Freedom were more visible than the SDS - the Harvard team was infused with that era's cultural ferment. While the preppy-ish Yale team worshiped their coach, Carmen Cozza, the Harvard team saw their own coach, John Yovicsin, as one of those distant, out-of-touch authority figures that the '60s rebelled against. "In the spirit of '68," one player recalls, "we took over the team."

When the dust cleared, The Game was a 29-to-29 tie, a result that was seen as a victory for the Harvard upstarts and a clear defeat for the Yale juggernaut. The Game has been remembered that way ever since, but it's part of the charm of Rafferty's film that, 40 years on, even the Yale players who were crushed at the time realize that this tie was their purchase on history. Instead of vanishing into the past like so many good teams, this game made them part of an enduring sports legend. You see, as un-American as it may sound, sometimes you can win by not winning.

DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can hear a podcast of our show at our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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