Monday, June 27, 2011

#325. Testament (1983)

Directed By: Lynne Littman

Starring: Jane Alexander, William Devane, Rossie Harris

Tag line: "Everything is perfectly normal... For the very last time."

Trivia:  Film debut of Lukas Haas.

To this day, I remember the hype that surrounded the network premiere of Nicholas Meyer's apocalyptic tragedy, The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie that pushed the threat of nuclear devastation into the foreground. There are scenes in The Day After that have stayed with me all these years: the missiles launching from their underground silos, the mushroom clouds blooming just over the horizon, the desolate city streets.  All powerful images, to be sure. 

Subtle? No...but still quite powerful.

Testament, also released in 1983, tells a very similar story, yet does so in an entirely different manner.  This is evident in the film's most dramatic scene, where Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander), a housewife and mother of three, has just returned home from watching the rehearsals for her youngest son's (Lukas Haas) school play. After a short while, Carol listens to her phone messages, two of which were left by her husband, Tom (William Devane), one saying he's going to be working late, the next that he's had a change of plans, and will instead be coming home early. Her oldest son, Brad (Rossie Harris), is fiddling with the TV antennae, trying to improve the reception, when a newscaster (Clete Roberts) interrupts their program with a breaking story: a number of nuclear detonations have been detected along the East Coast of the United States, and the president has declared a state of emergency. The phone rings. It's Carol's mother calling from Chicago, but before they can say anything more than “hello” to one another, the line goes dead. Just then, a bright light bursts through the windows of the Wetherly house, and a panic-stricken Carol gathers her family on the floor.

Where The Day After relied on scenes of destruction to drive its point home, Testament is much more intimate, showing the devastation not on a grand scale, but a personal one, and as a husband and father, I can tell you I found Testament positively terrifying.

Fortunately, the town of Hamlin, California, where the Wetherlys reside, was left virtually unscathed by the blast. That night, most of the town gathers at the home of Henry (Leon Ames) and Rosemary Abhart (Lurene Tuttle). Henry has a short wave radio, and from what he can gather, the rest of the world is in chaos. Carol holds out hope that Tom, who works in San Francisco, got out of the city before the bombs hit, and is on his way home to them. As for Hamlin, it's a close-knit community, and everyone seems ready and willing to help each other out in this moment of crisis. But as weeks go by with no news from the outside, and illnesses start popping up in every corner of town, "neighborly concern" begins to wane.

Testament is a moving film, a motion picture that ignores spectacle in favor of personal drama. Throughout the movie, we learn very little of what's happening to the rest of the world, and nothing whatsoever of why the bombs went off in the first place. The film takes the rather bold stance that the world outside is already dead. Hamlin, on the other hand, is alive, but slowly dying, and to watch as it struggles for life proves much more heartbreaking than a thousand mushroom clouds in the distance.

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