- Movie Rating -

Testament (1983)

| November 4, 1983

I entered into Lynn Littman’s Testament knowing only that it had something to do with nuclear war.  I had visions of the nightmare scenario, of mushroom clouds, building reduced to ash, people reduced to skeletons and trees torn by their roots.  Yes, it is a film about the fallout of a nuclear war but none of those pre-requisite tenets are present.  Littman’s film is much more about the human toll, the intimacy of the American family and the devastation wrought from the fallout of a nuclear disaster.  In that way it is far more effective and more devastating because the film does not focus on the devastating images, it focuses more on the long-term effects.

The film stars Jane Alexander as Carol Weatherly, who fusses around after her family: husband Tom (William Devane) and kids Mary (Roxane Zal), Brad (Rossie Harris) and little Scottie (Lucas Haas). This is the kind of family that you could imagine in one of those coffee ads where we see the kids off to school and Carol turning to the camera and saying “I love my family, but sometimes I need a little time to myself.” Littman allows the movie almost an hour before anything bad happens, allowing us to get to know this family and some of the intricate details of their inner lives.

The Weatherly’s live in the small town of Hamlin, not far from San Francisco, a sort of picturesque town with a sweet small-town flavor. There is time for us to get us comfortable with what we will later feel deteriorating from their lives. By the time bad things start happening, we have a feeling that we have moved into their living room.

Then it happens.  One day, while watching television, the news frantically announces that nuclear strikes have hit New York and points along the east coast. The broadcast abruptly cuts out. A bomb (we’re told) has hit San Francisco. Hamlin is not in the epicenter but a blinding flash of light tells us that something bad has happened. Tom is away on a business trip, and on the answering machine he leaves a message that he is on his way home. After the bomb, however, he is never heard from again.

Hamlin is not directly affected by the immediate blast, but over time succumbs to the effects of the radiation in the air. People around town get sick and die and eventually so many have died so quickly that the cemeteries are all full. The survivors get no news from the outside, nor any supplies and eventually the basic necessities become scarce. The effect is devastating for those left behind.

Carol takes charge, trying to be resourceful enough to make provisions and keep her family afloat. Her lifeline is Brad, who eventually becomes her only child. He never manages to lose his cool. He is as resourceful as his mother, riding around on his bike collecting things and helping out around town. Eventually it is not enough.

At the center of the film is Carol, who keeps a brave face in the middle of all the confusion. There is a light in her eyes, a glow on her face that dims and eventually grows sallow and dark. She refuses to have outbursts or to break into tears for a very long time, even in the face of the death of one of her own. The closest thing to an outburst comes when the family prepares a funeral in the back yard and the weary town priest wants to start even though Carol isn’t ready yet.  Her face is a mask of detachment and passive disassociation as the supplies grow short, the graveyard fills up and eventually the townsfolk have to start burning the bodies of their beloved dead.  Even in the face of having to rip up sheets to sew a shroud for her daughter, Carol remains in check.  All of this leads up to a moment by a bonfire when she finally cracks.

Director Lynn Littman deserves credit here for her restraint.  She is determined to show us the long-term psychological effects that such a disaster will have on a small town. There are no action scenes in this movie (the closest thing comes when a neighborhood bully breaks into Carol’s house to steal food). There are no mushroom clouds, no burning bodies, no twisted buildings. There are no scenes of mass riots or looting, no fights over food or supplies. The film doesn’t really even provide us with a villain. We never learn what exactly happened, who dropped the bomb or what the global effect might be.

This film sees the day-to-day effects of such devastation and follows it week after week, month after month. The effects of death, shortage of supplies and what to do and how to live are right there in Carol’s eyes. The ending offers a glimmer of hope as Carol tries to reassure her son and an adopted son that they must live on. That ending may not work for some but, for me, it is a small ray of hope in the center of a film that focuses on how hope becomes an important weapon.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama