It was during this timeframe, the early 80s, when two very important films were released, movies that would sway the public opinion regarding military strength and foreign policy, especially as it was tied to weapons of mass destruction. On television, Nicholas Meyer provided the punch as a small Kansas town found itself feeling the direct effects of a nuclear strike in The Day After. With its graphic depictions of the aftermath of fallout and special effects filled mushroom clouds, it was much a horror film as an exercise in speculative social fiction. But in that same year, 1983, another, far subtler film was released, a movie concerning yet another small town (this one in California) and the result of an all out nuclear war, nationwide. Without all the visual hoopla and outright horrendousness of The Day After, its immediate impact was hard to measure.
But Testament is that rare treat, a thoroughly devastating narrative that serves up its shock in small whispers, and terrifies in telling the intricate, intimate details of a family facing more than just a disruption in their daily life. The world as they know it is about to change permanently, perhaps for the last time. And there was nothing that they, or we, could do about it.
Yet, in a single flash of light, everything changes. America is under nuclear attack, and while not taking a direct hit, Hamlin is close enough to feel the aftereffects. Tom was on his way home when the bomb hit, and with communication cut off from the outside world, the Wetherbys are uncertain about their patron's safety. Hours of worry turn into days, then weeks, and finally infinite spaces along a continuum that no one has a name for any longer. Some citizens pack up and leave. Others merely lay down and die, overcome by the radiation flowing through everything. But Carol is determined to make it. She will wait for her husband to return, and care for her children the best she can. This is her statement of survival. This is her Testament.
Immensely grim, hypnotically horrifying, and as painful to endure as the events depicted are to consider, Testament is one of the most potent and powerful anti-war and No-Nukes movies ever made. Crafted with care and an amazing attention to truth and specifics, you will never witness the loss of human life and the devastation of a social structure in quite the same way as the manner in which it is played out here. Marking a truly tumultuous time in the history of the US, an era where politics seemed constantly to be pushing us close to the edge, it's a film that never apologizes for its beliefs while avoiding all the histrionics of politics and policy. Indeed, we have no warning before the blasts, no idea that there is trouble in the air. Perhaps there isn't. Or maybe, as the mother character Carol Wetherby suggests, there is some ongoing struggle that has been forced out, as usual, of their daily consideration (she does hint that a local boy is being indicted for avoiding the draft, but back in the 80s, with registration for the Selective Service a mandate, this could be just a casual comment of concern). Whatever the reasons, we are not prepared for the moment, and when it comes, it places it firmly back into our seats.
What we wade through then, from this moment on, is more or less a communal case of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of death and dying. At first, the small town is angry – phones don't work, gas is rationed, the local merchants are looted. Then there is the denial of those who hope to escape. Even with word that this attack was national (perhaps, even global) they load up their cars and head for the hills, hoping to somehow reconnect with civilization in the process. Bargaining rears its frightened head as people start sheltering themselves from each other, thinking they can work out their own private agreement with God, or Karma, and ride out the storm. As the bodies begin building up and death seems inevitable, depression kicks in with incredible resolve. Like zombies depleted of their supply of fresh meat, or the homeless, stripped of their humanity and dignity, the last few residents of Hamlin shuffle around town. A cloud of personal pain hangs over the situation, a pall from which many will never return. Some could point to this position as being the cornball cliché about the immediate casualties being the "lucky" ones. But as Testament tells it, no one's situation is charmed in this unfathomable calamity.
Funny thing is, there is no acceptance. There is no moment when we believe the characters are really resigned to their fate. Indeed, if there is a strong central message in Testament, it is that the will to survive may thrive long after the body can physically conform to such a mindset. People will go down fighting, kicking and screaming in sometimes silent, subdued ways to avoid the clutch of the grim reaper, especially when he's been called up for such a seemingly pointless reason as the dropping of an atomic bomb. Because it doesn't lay blame, since it fails to provide a back story to give us villains to hiss and heroes to cheer, Testament becomes a real nuclear holocaust film. It shows the reality of such a security strategy, emphasizing that nothing will subsist after such an exchange – except, perhaps the indomitable spirit of humanity. But just like any other 'no win' situation, the optimism is sprinkled with that saddest of seasonings – certainty – and as the final credits roll, we understand that no one will be alive to explain what happened. That is the ultimate legacy of any nuclear exchange.
Mixing elements of science fiction, drama, documentary and diatribe, Testament is very strong stuff. It hits you at all levels from all sides, placing you squarely in the position of the survivors and questioning what you would do in their place. It ridicules the perceived preparedness of authority and mocks the notion that, as a nation, something official and organized will be left behind to pick up the pieces. Testament proves what a fundamental fool's paradise such a certainty is (indeed, months go by and the population of Hamlin is left to more or less fade away and become extinct). There is also very little of the expected internal aggression one would imagine after such horrific events. We are not privy to the looting, the simple squabbles and selfish hording. There is a beefy, bully character, Billdocker, who steals batteries from the collection zones and breaks into the Wetherbys home looking for supplies, but he is never made into a menace, just a poor, misguided child who has no other reaction to the loss of his way of life than criminality. Testament argues that when all of existence is wiped away, when the table is cleared and a new set of circumstances take its place, few will resort to their previous personalities. Instead there will be a new, more muted entity, unable to cope but capable of great courage if called upon. And their is substantial shouting all around.
It takes a great cast to sell something this heart wrenching, to overcome the melancholy inherent in such a story and give us reason to remain engaged. Luckily, documentarian Lynne Littman ensembles a stellar group of actors to find the soul in this spirit crushing conceit. Such old timers as Leon Ames and Lurene Tuttle (he famed for his father/authority figure roles in countless Disney films, she best known for a myriad of TV roles far too numerous to mention) are very effective as the Abharts, an elderly couple who open up their home – containing the sole source of communication, a ham radio – to the rest of the community. They provide a bridge between the generations: the leftovers of the last Great War trying to live out yet another global fiasco. As the Wetherby children, Lukas Haas (Witness), Roxana Zal (There's Something About Amelia) and Ross Harris (Peter Grave's cockpit buddy in Airplane!) are remarkable as divergent elements of need.
As Scottie, Lukas is all sensitivity and fear, a constant source of concern for his mom. On the other hand, Ross's Brad is trying to take the place of his absent father, and finding he fits the job rather well. Zal's Mary Liz is the most miserable, trying to balance her deep desire for Dad against the continuation of everyday deeds. Never once do we feel that these are "movie" kids, entities created and fashioned to raise empathy or provide enlightenment. They are real residents of Hamlin, part of the overall fabric of this minor mirror of civilization. Even Kevin Costner shows up with an equally young Rebecca De Mornay as the Pitkins, a couple who suffers one of the first tragedies in our tale. They represent everyone and no one, the kind of simple, sedate people who are permanently displaced by such a situation. Both performances match the precept perfectly.
And at the center of it all, like a Goddess cast down among mortals to serve out some manner of piety punishment is the amazing Jane Alexander. Her's is a performance in stark contrast to expectations, a tour-de-force without a single manic wig-out, a tired monologue or an over-important speech. Carol Wetherby merely exits, stumbling in the wake of such a permanent sinkhole into her world, but assuming she has the strength of character to carry on. She is partially right. At times rigid and barely broken, in others about as close to the end as a human can be and still seem functional, this is acting at its most natural and unforced. Alexander is doing so much through so little, channeling greater goods and more heinous Hells than anyone can imagine enduring while keeping on the motionless, matron mask. Yet as the stress builds and the pestilence persists, she feels no relief. But she never passes that philosophy onto her family (even in a moment of suicidal weakness, she recants and instantly regains her composure and place). Nominated for an Oscar for her work here, Alexander is the concrete core of Testament, the ragged rock everyone comes to rely on – even the audience. Without her fortitude and frame of mind, this truly would be impossible to ponder.
Littman must also be congratulated for not resorting to grandstanding gimmicks or overblown idealism to make her case. An obvious advocate for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, she lets the truth, not some misapplied special effect, prove her point. Her greatest achievement comes in the first 15 minutes of the movie, where she manages to capture the world of the Wetherbys in all its casual, collective elements. It makes the implied impact of the H-bomb detonation that much more frightening, and final, since we understand completely what is about to be lost. Without going into graphic detail or piling on the melodramatic moments, Littman gets us involved, cheering on the survivors in what will end up being a hopeless cause. Some may argue that a heavy hand is used during a particularly poignant school play sequence, and there are a few moments where the message gets lost in amongst the grave pauses. But overall, Testament feels complete, telling its story in succinct, understated ways. Thankfully, Littman is a filmmaker who understands that such cruel content goes down better without a lot of ham-fisted bravado and ear-piercing preaching. In Testament, all we get is authenticity and actuality – and nothing is scarier that that.
Like its title, Testament is evidence of a moment in time, a place where the world was precariously balanced between peace and annihilation. It walks us through the aftermath of such a sovereignty strategy with grace and grotesquery. It highlights the breakdown of the social structure as the family tightens and reforms. It violates all the rules of cinema in failing to provide a happy ending or a shred of promise. It pits people against unbeatable elements and wants us to witness every last dying breath. As much a homage to home and children as it is a statement of political prescience, it is a fantastic fatalistic movie. Let's pray that some of the sights and sounds reflected in this sad, somber poem to people falls on open ears and eyes. We should never return to the days when war was not only cold, but potentially billions of times hotter than the sun. This should be the final word on the subject. This should be Testament's legacy.
Indeed, the 'making of' documentary, "Testament: At 20", is far superior in both tone and temperament to the rote ridiculousness of "Nuclear Thoughts". Bringing almost all the cast back together (even Costner makes an appearance) and allowing them to reflect and reprimand, this is an amazing 30 minutes of memory mining. There is a warm, genial approach to the featurette, like watching the outtakes of a family reunion video. The kids, now grown up with careers and families of their own, are especially insightful, realizing how lucky they were, and still are, to be part of something so significant as well as so close to the truth. Alexander tries to put things into proper political perspective, and for the most part, she does. Even Littman is more evenhanded here, almost as if the material brings out the best in her activism. Fans of the film should relish every moment of this amazing, engaging look at how this movie was made.
Aside from a "Timeline of the Nuclear Age" (a text crawl of various highpoints(?) in the history of the bomb), Paramount gives us nothing else. No commentary from cast or crew. No real historical context or attempt to recapture the time and place of the angst ridden early 80s. From a technical standpoint, this is a fine digital presentation. But for a film this important, the added features should have been fleshed out more.
Someone once suggested that anyone who would launch a nuclear strike on another nation is a fool, since they guaranteed their own destruction as well. While this may not stop some from pursuing their perverted aims, it has halted many. Thankfully, Testament is more like a universal nightmare made real, rather than a lesson in history, either in the making or in the foretelling. If it was, indeed, our true legacy, we'd be doomed. After all, we never learn from our past. We are only condemned to repeat it. And we will never get a second chance at getting this part right.