June 21, 2005
With the nuclear arms race and the Cold War reaching a climax in the early to mid-‘80s, the threat of nuclear war was prevalent on most people’s minds. Two made-for-TV movies, The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984), tried to address, in graphically realistic fashion, the implication and ramifications of nuclear war. Testament (1983) wisely goes for a more personal, intimate take on the subject by focusing on the dynamics of one family.
The day starts like any other: Carol Wetherly (Alexander) wakes up, her husband, Tom (Devane), takes their eldest son, Brad (Harris), for an early morning bicycle ride. The daughter, Mary Liz (Zal), practices the piano while the youngest boy, Scottie (Haas), would rather play games in his pajamas than get dressed for breakfast. They live in a quiet, sleepy town in California. It could be Anywhere, USA, which is what makes what happens all the more frightening.
The family is watching TV one day after school when an emergency broadcast comes on informing them that New York City and the East Coast have suffered a nuclear attack. Moments later, a blinding light saturates everything and air sirens sound off. People exit their homes, wondering what has happened. Communication has been cut off from most places. That night, everyone is glued to the TV. Carol and her neighbours meet and try to come up with a plan for survival.
To keep her sanity as she waits for her husband to return, Carol starts a journal to record her thoughts. As the reality of the situation sinks in, people start to panic and order begins to gradually erode. Through it all Carol puts on a brave face for her children and tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life even as she is forced to watch her children die from radiation sickness, one by one. The radiation poisoning doesn’t discriminate as women and children die.
Director Lynne Littman spends the time to let us get to know the Wetherly family and the dynamic between all of its members so that we become emotionally invested in them and care about what happens later on. The entire cast is excellent with Jane Alexander delivering an especially deeply moving and heartfelt performance that grounds the film. She provides the movie’s emotional core and this resulted in an Academy Award nomination for her efforts.
“Testament at 20” is a 26-minute retrospective look that reunites the three Wetherly children with the film’s director, Lynne Littman. She talks about how she discovered the story, contacted the author and optioned it. Jane Alexander also talks about how she got involved in the project. It is great to see so many of the actors after all these years reflecting on what the movie means to them. In a pleasant surprise, Kevin Costner is even interviewed.
“Testament: Nuclear Thoughts” starts off by juxtaposing a vintage ‘50s “Duck and Cover” educational film with a recent Homeland Defense promo to demonstrate how little has changed in the intervening years. The government is still clueless in how to effectively convey the dangers that threaten our country. This featurette is a sobering reminder of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.
Finally, there is a “Timeline of the Nuclear Age” that goes from the creation of the Manhattan Project in 1942 to Libya giving up their nuclear program in 2004.
Testament downplays the more sensational aspects of post-nuclear life in favour of a compassionate portrait of a family coping with the unimaginable. This is a quietly powerful movie still holds up after all these years. Kudos to Paramount for releasing this underrated movie on DVD.
Rating: Lynne Littman%