Movie: Testament (1983)

I must have some sort of obsession with dramas about the survivors of nuclear war.  God knows I have seen enough of them.  Most of these movies were made in the 1980’s, which makes sense.  The prevailing feeling at the time that we could be annihilated at any moment was perfectly captured by Prince when he sang in “1999”: “We could all die any day”.

When most people think of such pictures, I’m betting they first think of The Day After, the miniseries that traumatized a nation.  Watching that today shows it has lost much of its power as, however good its intentions might have been, it is pure shlock. 

But there is another, much lesser known, movie that still packs a devastating punch.  It also was originally intended to be a TV movie until the studio realized how great it was and gave it a theatrical release.  That movie is Testament, and it is going to hand your ass to you.

The minor miracle this film performs is that it keeps everything small-scale.  It is focused on one unremarkable family living in a cookie-cutter subdivision in California.  We hardly get to know these people before the bombs hit. 

Even then, the only special effect is a blinding light through the living room windows.  The filmmakers didn’t even stoop to using the atomic bomb testing stock footage we have all seen a hundred times over.

This isn’t a movie about huge numbers of casualties.  This isn’t a post-apocalyptic adventure where people go feral and tribal.  No—this is all about one family and the slow, horrible fade to death that awaits each one of its members.

The performances in this are astonishing in that it feels like we are seeing real people.  Some people may dismiss such natural performances as lazy.  I counter it is easy to perform a role you were like a costume, but more difficult to play just an everyday nobody.  Basically, there is nothing less natural than trying to act naturally (regardless of what Ringo sings in that song from Rubber Soul).

The movie centers around Jane Alexander as the mother, and she was rightly nominated for Best Actress for this.  William Devane plays the father, and the last time we see him is when he leaves for work.  We never even find out what happened to him, which is a succinct way of describing how this film operates. 

Curiously, probably the two performers who give less than stellar performances are a very young Kevin Costner and Rebecca DeMornay, and that is only because I perceived them as being “in character” and thus a tad artificial.  Lukas Haas plays the youngest in the family, and shows why he has had a long career in film.

In its own way, Testament is a beautiful film and I hope I have the courage to watch it again someday.  For now, it was so effective that I find hard to even think about it.  I feel like I briefly met real people, only to watch them die.

And yet the movie has a message of optimism for us, those who can still avoid a nuclear war.  The message isn’t even ham-fisted—it is just floated out there near the middle at the end of the film.  To paraphrase this message I want to conclude this piece by saying we need to create a world worthy of its children.

Dir: Lynne Littman

Starring Jane Alexander, William Devane, Lukas Haas

Watched on Imprint blu-ray (import, all-region)