Director: Lynne Littman
Screenplay: John Sacret Young (based on the story "The Last Testament" by Carol Amen)
Stars: Jane Alexander (Carol Wetherly), William Devane (Tom Wetherly), Rossie Harris (Brad Wetherly), Roxana Zal (Mary Liz Wetherly), Lukas Haas (Scottie Wetherly), Philip Anglim (Father Hollis Mann), Lilia Skala (Fania Morse), Leon Ames (Henry Abhart), Lurene Tuttle (Rosemary Abhart), Rebecca De Mornay (Cathy Pitkin), Kevin Costner (Phil Pitkin), Mako (Mike), Gerry Murillo (Hiroyshi)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1983
Country: U.S.
Testament DVD
Conventional visions of the horrors of a nuclear attack tend to focus on the immediate, violent effects of the explosion--the winds of fire that sweep away houses, cars, and people in a rush of apocalyptic destruction. It's the kind of horrific imagery that immediately grabs the imagination because it's so intense, so massive, so all-encompassing. And, particularly in the early 1980s when President Ronald Reagan had re-escalated the arms race and tensions were high with the Soviet Union, the American imagination was fixated on the omnipresent possibility of warheads raining down at any given minute.

Not surprisingly, then, these fears worked their way into popular culture, particularly movies. In 1983, there was a rash of such films, including WarGames, a teen thriller that posited the frightening notion that our overreliance on computers could result in an unintended nuclear holocaust (an idea taken up by James Cameron in his Terminator films). More to the point was the made-for-TV movie The Day After, which shocked the nation with its grim, grisly imagining of what a nuclear attack on the U.S. might look like. While WarGames simply posited the threat, The Day After rubbed our noses in the possibilities of the aftermath.

And then there was Testament, which was originally made for television, but so impressed the executives at Paramount that they gave it a richly deserved international theatrical run. Based on a chilling first-person short story by Carol Amen and directed by Lynne Littman, who was primarily a documentary filmmaker, Testament took a completely different approach to depicting nuclear disaster, one that was less immediately gruesome, but much more emotionally effective. Instead of showing the bombs falling and the sky turning to fire, Testament shows us something that is arguably even worse: What happens to the people left behind?

The story takes place in Hamlin, a small, sleepy California burg outside of San Francisco. The opening passages are simple and mundane, establishing the everyday lives of the Wetherly family. Housewife Carol (Jane Alexander) goes about her daily chores while the father, Tom (William Devane), rides bikes with his 11-year-old son Brad (Rossie Harris). Thirteen-year-old daughter Mary Liz (Roxana Zal) takes piano lessons, and the youngest, sensitive six-year-Scottie (Lukas Haas), practices for a school play in which he is to play the crippled boy in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose story has immediately obvious thematic parallels with Testament.

The next afternoon, the TV suddenly goes on the fritz and we learn from news reports that the entire East Coast has been hit by nuclear missiles. Seconds later, they start hitting the West Coast, including San Francisco. When the bombs fall, we only see a white flash that engulfs the screen, swallowing up the characters and leaving a gray haze over the rest of the film. Tom was in business in San Francisco at the time, and Carol waits patiently for the return she knows in her heart of hearts will never come.

The rest of the film depicts the slow, agonizing death of Hamlin due to the radiation fallout. Isolated and without any help from the outside, the citizens attempt to maintain order and go about business as usual, but as people begin dying in droves (beginning with the children), the awful inevitability of everyone's fate takes hold and resigns even the strongest of wills. Horror is invoked at first in tiny details--"dust" on the cereal bowls, milk that tastes funny, the strange grayish quality of the light coming through the windows--which gives way to more harrowing images of bodies being loaded on trucks and burned because the cemeteries are full, empty streets littered with abandoned cars and trash, and a mother calmly making a burial cloth for her daughter out of sheets.

In a powerful, Oscar-nominated performance, Jane Alexander conveys Carol's steely resolve as it crumbles day after day, her voice-over journal entries going from confusion and fear, to resignation, to what seems to be utter defeat. The film will most likely resonate most sharply and deeply with parents, because it is a parental nightmare of being trapped in a dire situation in which you have no power. Carol can only keep up the pretense of protection while her children die around her.

Yet, Testament is not a one-note downer. As cautionary tale for the nuclear age, it is certainly explicit in laying out the zero-sum game of nuclear war: No one wins because everyone dies. Yet, amidst the trauma are sparks of the human spirit and its refusal to be denied. Littman underscores the sense of loss by interspersing throughout the film bits of 8mm home movie footage of the Weatherlys in better times, and it is telling that she chooses to end the film on such footage. By juxtaposing images of two birthday parties, one before the war and one in the last days of its aftermath, she conveys how the human spirit perseveres in even the most extreme circumstances. Testmament may ultimately be about the death of the human race, but it is also about the how the spirit lives on as long as at least one person refuses to give in.

Testament DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • "Testament at 20" featurette
  • "Testament: Nuclear Thoughts" featurette
  • Timeline of nuclear development
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateDecember 7, 2004

    The new anamorphic widescreen transfer of Testament has a slightly soft look and graininess in the darker scenes that is most likely an unavoidable consequence of the fact that it was originally a made-for-TV movie with a low budget. There are a few white specks throughout, but nothing that is terribly distracting.

    The soundtrack is presented in its original monaural mix and sounds quite good. The sound mix is deliberately low-key, and James Horner's elegiac musical score sounds beautifully haunting, even in mono.

    The disc includes two very good featurettes, both of which were directed by Lynne Littman (given her involvement here, I wonder why she didn't record an audio commentary). The first, "Testament at 20," is a 30-minute retrospective featurette that reunites the three actors who played the Wetherly kids. Also included in the featurette are Littman herself, Jane Alexander, writer John Sacret Young, composer James Horner, cinematographer Steven Poster, and producers Anna Asimow and Jonathan Bernstein. Amazingly enough, Littman even got Kevin Costner, who has a supporting role as a young father, to contribute a new interview. The second featurette, "Testament: Nuclear Thoughts," is more about nuclear war in general. It features several scenes of young teenagers talking about the film after having just seen it, as well thoughts from a Harvard University professor and several of the film's actors. Lastly, the disc includes a timeline of the nuclear age, which is rather annoyingly presented as vertically scrolling text.

    Copyright © 2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright ©2004 Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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