I turned six years old in 1983 and my parents did a pretty good job at sheltering me from the violence of the real world. All I knew from violence was Star Wars and the cartoons that I was watching before and after school. I had no idea that in the early 1980s, America was at odds with the Soviet Union and that tension was heating up again, so much so that the threat of nuclear war–which had simmered a little because of detente in the 1970s–was beginning to loom. Sure, we did air raid drills in school every once in a while, but we had no idea what an “air raid” was; we just knew that we had to line up against the walls of our elementary school hallway and duck and cover.
I ramble in the intro here because in and around 1983, there were at least a few movies, both on television and in theaters that dealt with the horrors of nuclear war. I’d say that the most famous and controversial of these was The Day After, a 1983 television movie starring Jason Robards about America and Russia hitting one another with a nuclear attack. A year later, we’d have movies like Red Dawn and The Terminator, which took a different perspective on nuclear armageddon and World War III, but alongside The Day After were a few other pieces, one of which was Testament.
Directed by Lynne Littman (an Academy Award winner in 1976 for best documentary short) and written by John Sacret Young (creator of China Beach) from a short story by Carol Amen, Testament was originally produced for PBS’s American Playhouse but was deemed worth a theatrical release by Paramount (PBS would air it a year later). It focuses on the fictional town of Hamelin, California (which is an suburb/exburb of San Francisco) and our main characters are the Weatherly family: parents Tom (William Devane) and Carol (Jane Alexander); and children Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), Brad (Ross Harris), and Scottie (a very young Lukas Haas). We open with Tom and Brad riding ten-speed bikes together and Brad struggling to get up a large hill in their neighborhood, at the end of which is the house of Mr. Abhart (Leon Ames), an old man who lives with his wife and is a Ham radio enthusaist. After the morning ride, Tom goes off to work, the kids go off to school, and Carol spends her day doing chores and volunteering with the elementary school’s play (a production of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”). That afternoon, while Scottie watches Sesame Street, the broadcast signal goes in and out and a local newsman appears on screen talking about a nuclear attack on the east coast. He is then cut off by the emergency broadcast system and there is a blinding flash of light. Carol and the kids duck and cover.
Because the attack hit San Francisco and it’s established that Hamelin is about 90 minutes outside of the city, the town winds up escaping any damage. However, questions remain as to what happened and whether any of the residents who work closer to or in San Francisco–including Tom, who had called Carol just before the attack that he was headed home for dinner–survived. They go on with the school play, Mr. Abhart gets on his radio to see if he can communicate with any part of the country, and the family takes in a neighbor named Larry whose parents never returned from the city. As time goes on, though (and the passage of time is shown through voice-overs of Carol’s journals), the situation gets more and more desperate. Food supplies get low, townspeople argue with one another more, others leave, and many of those who stay behind begin to succumb to radiation poisoning.
I am trying to remember where I first heard about this film and I think it may have been a comment thread on an A.V. Club or iO9 article; I watched it because Amazon Prime had it available for free streaming. It is a very small, very quiet film about nuclear war, which sounds surprising (and maybe a little ironic), but we never see anything beyond Hamelin and the film is sparsely scored, with Littman relying on the natural sounds and lack thereof to help tell the story. Jane Alexander was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Carol (her third, with the previous two being for All The President’s Men and Kramer vs. Kramer; she also has Tony and Emmy Awards) and definitely deserved it. Carol is the stay-at-home mom of what at the time was a typical suburban middle-class family. Devane, as her husband, is a salt-and-pepper haired dad who has a real presence on screen and projects the type of personality of being a well-liked man.
The child actors are also outstanding, which is risky for a movie like this because I am sure we have all seen our fair share of whiny kids in movies. Ross Harris plays Brad as a bit whiny in the beginning, but the type of kid who really looks up to his dad and wants to be him, something he winds up shouldering during the time when Tom isn’t there during the attack. Roxana Zal plays Mary Liz as a very typical “good” teenage girl who, as time goes on, slowly comes to realize that the way the world has changed means that the life she was looking forward to won’t happen. Lukas Haas, who was about six at the time when this was filmed, is in the “Gertie” role here, and manages to simply act like a little kid, no smarter or dumber than any one you’d see in real life.
In fact, the thing that got to me about the film was how well the sets, costumes, and overall atmosphere were created. While I grew up 3,000 miles away from the San Francisco suburbs, Sayville is very much a town like the one portrayed here. The family’s house–both inside and out–looks like some of the houses I spent my childhood in and out of when playing with my friends. The kids all dress like kids in the early 1980s did (to the point where Brad and Mary Liz look like they could have been taken from my elementary school). In effect, I’m watching what would have happened to my world if the bomb had gone off. Not only that, there’s no real explanation as to why it happened or what else is going on in the world. Mr. Abhart does get some information via his radio, but it’s hearsay and conjecture and as electricity begins to fade and batteries run out, the town becomes more and more isolated. Furthermore, you feel this isolation and a sense of claustrophobia, especially since Littman doesn’t play any tricks with the camera or production–there’s no lens filters and as I mentioned earlier, very little in the way of score music to guide us. We’re left sitting there, watching this, getting uncomfortable and sad at the same time.
The film is 90 minutes long and even though it’s a tight hour and a half, Littman allows time for the characters to breathe and the situation to wash over the audience. It shows that she trusts her actors as well and knows that Jane Alexander can carry the entire film. When people start dying, you feel it and when the film ended, it stayed with me. In fact, I almost watched it again but didn’t think I could handle another viewing right away because it’s incredibly emotional. Yes, there are a few melodramatic moments, but I appreciated how they tried to be as straightforward and realistic as possible, both with the family and with the supporting cast of townspeople. Kevin Costner and Rebecca DeMornay (who would have been in Risky Business around the same time this was released) play a young couple with a baby who go to Carol for advice and eventually leave town; and Mako plays the owner of a gas station who has a developmentally disabled son. The interactions with Carol and the other members of the family feel natural and honest and while you do have hope for these people (especially since the town doesn’t devolve into a chaotic looting and murder spree), you also feel horrible because it’s such a desperate situation.
If you’re triggered by stories of such catastrophe, I’d proceed with caution, but by all means, I think everyone should watch Testament. It’s one of those forgotten movies that wound up being overshadowed by more well-known and controversial productions, which is a shame because even more than three decades later, it resonates.
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