Films that effectively capture the mood of the ’60s are few and far between. Writer-director Jay Craven’s “The Year That Trembled” (based on a novel by Scott Lax and referring to a line from Walt Whitman) succeeds on that level, yet still fails to generate much excitement, due to the blandness of the characters and some murky storytelling. Expect no more than brief bookings before a video release.
Pic looks at the lives of a group of Ohio friends in the months following the famous 1970 killings of four students by National Guardsmen at nearby Kent State. At story’s center are three recent high school graduates — Casey (Jonathan Brandis), “Hairball” (Charlie Finn), and Phil (Sean Nelson) — who wait nervously for the upcoming draft lottery. For reasons not completely clear — no families are evident — they move into a cottage together. They take in an activist (Meredith Monroe) trying to avoid a subpoena in connection with a protest that turned violent (thanks to the encouragement of an FBI agent provocateur).
Next-door neighbor, Helen Kerrigan (Marin Hinkle), their favorite teacher, has been fired by the school board for encouraging open expression about the Vietnam War. Helen’s husband Charlie (Jonathan M. Woodward), a young lawyer, wants to help defend the Kent State students who have been indicted in connection with the antiwar protest; on the other hand, he has political ambitions and is thus reluctant to dodge the draft, despite his opposition to the war.
Craven deftly sets the stage with a montage of news clips before proceeding to a fictionalized street theater version of a great Vietnam Era protest. But he piles on the characters so quickly at the beginning — and they all seem so blankly generic — that it takes fully half of the film before it begins generating any feeling for these people and the utterly predictable things that are about to befall them.
The film includes good work from Henry Gibson, Fred Willard and Martin Mull (all playing it straight) and the latest actress from the Chaplin clan, Kiera. Matt Salinger appears for about 30 seconds. Tech work is adequate.