Testament (1983)

21 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Testament” is a heavy family drama about the aftereffects of a nuclear war, as experienced by a typical suburban American family. It’s not a science-fiction thriller and doesn’t resort to nonsensical action climaxes—there are no special effects in this movie at all; we don’t even see a mushroom cloud. It’s just a tragic tale about a small-town family trying to get by after a nuclear catastrophe has destructed outside civilization.

The film starts with routine scenes involving the family, letting us see what their lives are like before the disaster. We see the father Tom (William Devane) racing his middle child Brad (Ross Harris) down the street in the morning on bicycles, to get the kid into shape. We see the oldest child Mary Liz (Roxana Zal) practicing piano. We see the loving mother (Jane Alexander), making sure everything is under control in her household, that the kids get to school on time, and that her husband is home on time after work. And we see the youngest (and oddest) child Scottie (Lukas Haas), protecting “treasure” in his bottom drawer and wearing earmuffs to keep from hearing constant bickering. Everything seems fine and normal for this family. But the next day, while the father is out of town, the mother and the kids are watching TV (or trying to get a good reception with the antenna) on a sunny afternoon when suddenly, static appears on the screen and it’s followed by an emergency broadcast with the chilling line, “Ladies and gentlemen…this is real.” And then a bright light flashes, the terrified family huddles together, and when it’s over, everyone is wandering the street in confusion and fear.

The rest of the movie is about how this town, and particularly this family, deals with the effects of the disaster. Soon enough, gasoline is sold out, batteries are important necessities (not just for the kids’ electronic toys anymore), there’s some looting for food and supplies on occasion, town meetings are held at the church asking what they should all do, and life just keeps trying to go on, even when the grade-school play is decided to be held. However, death is constantly overshadowing this town—radiation poisoning is wiping out more than half of the population. The cemetery is filling up fast and pyres are even set up to burn the rest of the bodies. What it really comes down to is that the central characters—this family—are led by the mother to try to keep things positive, even in the most dire of situations.

If there’s a problem I have with “Testament,” it’s the lack of development with the supporting characters that come into the family’s lives and then are killed off by the radiation. In particular, there’s a kid who is left to the family and is so obviously doomed, and we hear that he has become part of the family, but we never see him really interact with them. One exception is a community leader (Leon Ames) who uses a ham-radio to make contact with places outside of town. I felt for this man right to his tragic end. And there’s also a mentally-challenged boy that, again, I didn’t want to see bad things happen to. But everyone else outside of the family is uninteresting.

Jane Alexander is great in this movie. Playing this mother as one of the more gentle, loving people in this fall from society, cherishing her children’s and her own life to the possibly bitter end, Alexander turns in a great performance and provides as the heart of the film. She shows graciousness even in the face of certain doom, making her the emotional center.

“Testament” is a film with a great deal of credibility that makes it all the more tense. There have been many movies about the very threat of nuclear war—this is about a nuclear war that has already occurred and how everybody deals with it. It’s the worst crisis in their lives, and yet there’s a certain sense of hope that things will turn out all right for everybody that’s left. What will become of the rest of these people? The movie doesn’t merely end with the answer to that question, but with a powerful scene expressing what some would consider small optimism.

One Response to “Testament (1983)”

  1. rhawes73 November 19, 2016 at 12:51 am #

    This is a powerful film. It left me depressed for days. Those who are currently so anxious to stir up war with Russia and other nuclear-armed powers ought to be forced to sit through this one, along with “The Day After.” As far as I’m concerned, though, “Testament” is a stronger film than “The Day After” due to the family dynamic and small-town emphasis. You want so badly for Jane Alexander and her children to live, but the shadow of death relentlessly overtakes them.

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