Based on a novel by Scott Lax...yeah, I never heard of it, either..."The Year That Trembled" takes twelve months in the lives of Vietnam-era Ohioans and turns it into a very special episode of "American Dreams."The late Jonathan Brandis is sullen but idealistic writer Casey, secretly in love with his recently fired idealistic teacher Helen (Marin Hinkle). Helen is married to idealistic law clerk Charlie (Jonathan M. Woodward), who is involved in some sort of lawsuit concerning the 1970 Kent State shootings. Idealistic Judy (Meredith Monroe) and FBI undercover agent Isaac (Jay R. Ferguson) are busy protesting the draft, which will soon affect Charlie, Casey, and a stoner named Hairball (Charlie Finn), who has no idea.
I have at least half a dozen other characters' names written down in my notes, from the token black guy who worships both Buddha and Jimi Hendrix to that cute little girl from "The Wonder Years" all grown up. Therein lies the major malfunction of the film. Screenwriter/director Craven tries so hard to cram everything in, the viewer is overwhelmed, especially when the movie feels like a bunch of outtakes glued together to make a story. Casey is a writer, the title comes from Walt Whitman, but what does Casey write? Much lawsuit talk is bandied about, but you would need a J.D. degree to understand just what the hell is going on.
Craven tries to dress up the film's importance with stock footage of the era, but even that idea is mishandled. The film takes place in 1970, but suddenly film footage of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown as they verbally protest the draft. Nothing wrong with that except both had been dead for two years before the film's setting.
I thought I was going to have to break out a flow chart to keep track of everyone. Having former child actors and some comedians (Fred Willard, Martin Mull, Henry Gibson) in such a heavy-handed drama feels a lot like stunt casting. I thought two blond characters, Jennifer and Judy, were the same person for close to ten minutes of the film's running time.Its heart is in the right place, and the film almost comes to life when one major character is actually sent to Vietnam. However, when a film trudges along under its own moral outrage, without getting the viewer to feel empathy, it fails.