In the town of “Hamlin,” Tom Wetherly (William Devane) presses his 12-year-old son Brad (Ross Harris) to keep up with him on their morning bicycle ride. Tom’s teenage daughter Mary Liz (Roxanne Zal) adores him, while his 5-year-old son Scottie (Lukas Haas) has been cast as a rat in a school recital of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander) is a nervous suburban housewife who stays in perpetual motion in an effort to keep up with her husband.
Carol listens to a message from Tom explaining that he’s stuck at the office. While her boys watch afternoon cartoons, the signal momentarily turns to static. It’s then replaced by breaking news: “This is San Francisco. We have lost our New York signal. Radar sources confirm the explosion of nuclear devices, there in New York, and up and down the East Coast. Ladies and gentlemen, this is real.” Carol receives a phone call from her mother in Chicago a second before the line goes dead and a flash appears outside.
The nuclear holocaust cuts Hamlin off from the outside world. Panicked neighbors (including a couple played by Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay) gather at the home of an elderly couple, who offer assistance to anyone who needs it. The old man is a short wave radio operator and has been able to contact some outlying communities, including Santa Rosa, which he reports has sustained blast damage. Hamlin appears to have been spared. The reason behind the attack or who started it remains unknown.
Other than the fact that Tom has yet to appear, life goes on for a while. Carol begins keeping a journal. Without electricity, batteries become a commodity. The Wetherlys receive fuel from a gas station owner (Mako) whose autistic son Tom had gone out of his way to be friendly to. The school recital goes on as planned, though many of Hamlin’s residents are becoming ill. Before long, the cemetery fills up. Brad asks his mother if they should leave. When she asks him what he thinks, he tells her they should stay.
The Last Testament was a short story by Carol Amen that originally appeared in the St. Anthony Messenger – a national Catholic weekly – in 1980. Ms. Magazine reprinted it and filmmaker Lynne Littman came across the story. Littman – who had won an Academy Award for her 1976 documentary short Number Our Days – contacted Amen and though reluctant, the author sold the film rights to her story, for $1,000. John Sacret Young was hired to adapt a script.
Littman had spent a year as an executive at ABC producing made-for-TV movies, but didn’t bother taking Testament to a commercial network. She approached the anti-nuclear community for funding. “They wept and passed. They were spending their money directly, not on metaphors.” Producers of the American Playhouse series on PBS pledged $500,000, while British company Entertainment Events invested $250,000, on the condition that American Playhouse agree to give them a theatrical release.
While ABC mounted The Day After, a $7 million TV movie event about nuclear holocaust, Testament was quietly shot in 28 days in the city of Sierra Madre, California. Word of mouth was so non-existent that Littman screened her finished film in the Sierra Madre High School auditorium. When it played the Telluride Film Festival in September 1983, Roger Ebert reported that it was “so painful, frightening and yet plausible that it left people shaken.” Paramount Pictures bid $500,000 to distribute Testament theatrically that fall.
The Day After utilized what was at that time cutting edge special effects and makeup to dramatize the effects of nuclear war, but only ended up vaporizing its plausibility in the process. Testament features not a single scene of destruction, but builds psychological and emotional horror few films sustain at this level. Schindler’s List did. So does Testament, a gut wrenching tale that imagines a domestic holocaust with similar power and meditation.
Testament generates plenty of unsettling suspense – a moment of paralyzing realization as the bomb hits, and mounting dread as people grow ill afterwards – but the film is effective because it never loses sight of its human toll. The family’s dynamic and the way they relate to one another resonate with a great deal of depth, as does the different ways they cope with loss and try to survive. Jane Alexander led a tremendous young cast and received a deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work.
Lacey Worrell at DVD Verdict writes, “Due to the moving performances from all involved, the spare but meaningful storyline, and the sensitive direction, Testament should go high on your list of must-see films. But be prepared: It will take you right back to a time that none of us are too eager to relive, but that we should never forget.”
“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,” writes Bill Gibron at DVD Talk.
Jeff Rosado at digitally Obsessed writes, “Though no one wants to believe that another 9/11 or potentially more disastrous occurrence of terrorist-inflicted madness will occur in our lifetime, Testament is a gripping, emotional reminder (despite being 20 years old) that such a moment is possible when you least expect it. Despite its subject matter, it’s not only a ‘must-see’ film, it’s a must-own DVD with terrific supplements that are so richly deserved. Highest recommendation.”