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by Brad Wilber

"An important document of the 1980s"
4 stars

The escalating nuclear arms race and the specter of mutually assured destruction are defining ingredients in the zeitgeist of the 1980s. Writers and filmmakers poured their preoccupation with World War III into numerous creative projects. Probably the two most famous bombing-aftermath movies are TV events of 1983-1984, one from each side of the Atlantic: ABC’s “The Day After” and the BBC’s “Threads.” Both depicted global saber rattling, mass hysteria, and Grand-Guignol scenes of destruction; both made sledgehammer statements for disarmament. The modest film TESTAMENT emerged around the same time, and was originally intended as a small-screen venture, too, but it was switched to a theatrical release that earned star Jane Alexander her fourth and most recent Oscar nomination. TESTAMENT represents, by sheer understatement, the antithesis of the other two films. It turns minute, matter-of-fact focus on a single household coping with the ultimate outcome of the cold war and the certainty of everyone’s eventual death by radiation poisoning. This treatment twists the knife with chilling quietude, and with TESTAMENT finally available on DVD as of Dec. 7, 2004, we should be glad for a chance to revisit it.

Carol Wetherly (Alexander) lives in Hamlin, California with her husband Tom (William Devane) and her three children. Mary Liz (Roxana Zal) and Brad (Ross Harris) are teenagers, and the considerably younger Scottie (Lukas Haas) is still clinging to teddy bears and arraying toy soldiers. In the midst of fretting about what to get Brad for his birthday and finalizing details for the school play she is directing (fittingly, The Pied Piper of Hamelin), Carol begins a diary to order her thoughts and feelings. This will be one of her last “normal” acts, as suddenly Carol sees the horizon seared with orange light. She huddles with the kids and watches in disbelief as the television, which was attempting to provide an explanation, loses its signal. The Wetherlys and the other townspeople soon gather at the home of ham-radio operator Henry Abhart (Leon Ames). He can’t raise any contacts in the eastern half of the country but gleans enough information to confirm that the U.S. has taken multiple hits—including one in nearby San Francisco. This would seem to seal the fate of the absent Tom, since it’s very likely he ended up in the Bay area on business that day.

Hamlin lies far enough away from the blast to have been spared outward ruin. TESTAMENT has none of the post-apocalyptic landscapes of the other movies. But we’re made to understand that radiation will inexorably poison air, water, and vegetation. Some survivors set off for areas reported on the radio to be safer (among them bereaved neighbors played touchingly by the young Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay). The Wetherlys opt to stay put; by staying together and staying productive they will infuse some meaning into this countdown to their grim sentence. The school play goes forward. Mary Liz continues piano lessons. Brad uses his bike to make neighborhood rounds with food and supplies. Carol finds herself having to expand her definition of “family” and take in lone children.

Alexander’s portrayal is characteristically forthright and unfussy; she knows that the driving force of the story is Carol’s sheer perseverance. Zal and Haas make memorable impressions in their film debuts—Roxana went on to the infamous MOTW “Something About Amelia,” and Lukas soon turned up in the title role of WITNESS. (One of the featurettes on the DVD is a twentieth-anniversary reunion of the three child actors.) You’ll remember the scene where Mary Liz asks her mother about what it would have felt like to make love, and the scene where Scottie wonders why Carol can’t undo this agonizing turn of events.

One of the marvels of this film is how strikingly apolitical it is. In the entire ninety minutes, no mention is made of who dropped the bombs or why; the quaking viewer will supply the name and motive of the aggressor. There is barely even an acknowledgment—beyond one line late in the film—that the falling bombs were a deliberate act. They could just as well have been meteors. No world leader makes an appearance, except for a fleeting glimpse of the president before his news bulletin succumbs to static. It's only the toll that matters.

Neither do we have a single corpse or deathbed farewell. There are telling images of people in physical decline, and the trappings of death are ever-present (one seemingly innocuous shot of Carol threading a needle widens into her putting the finishing touches on a homemade shroud), but when characters depart they do so off-camera. They are simply excised from the remainder of the film, to sobering effect on the audience. Director Lynne Littman and screenwriter John Sacret Young take plenty of cues from the diary motif in the original story, THE LAST TESTAMENT. Scenes are journal-entry brief, with poignant fadeouts every few minutes. Voiceovers from Carol underline the pathos in the mundane. Old home movies are interspersed among the horrors with increasing frequency to help us pine for happier days.

Littman was apparently one of several filmmakers who pitched a screen adaptation of THE LAST TESTAMENT within a short timespan. She apparently touched base with author Carol Amen in order to express interest in the material and bolster her position. Perhaps the fact that feminine sensibilities steered both versions of the narrative helps explain the film’s domesticity and intimacy. Some might say that avoidance of carnage and mayhem in a nuclear war story is not a valid point of view, but a shirking of duty or a concession to timidity. It’s true that there is something a little too mannerly about what little every-man-for-himself behavior we see here, but it’s not a credibility dealbreaker given that Hamlin is not really a town under siege so much as a town settling into numb resignation. If you subscribe to the tenet that the scariest parts of the movie are the ones left to your imagination, you may prefer TESTAMENT to the avalanche of brutality in the other films. Carol rocking her sick child to sleep…Carol scraping the last of the peanut butter out of the jar…Carol erasing her husband’s voice from the answering machine—all of these details pack their own punch.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2887&reviewer=395
originally posted: 12/23/04 22:38:53
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User Comments

7/14/07 Sugarfoot Really powerful movie that deals with the topic with credible and sobering results. 5 stars
8/30/06 Sepi53 Great film with great performance from Jane A 5 stars
1/12/05 Jeff Anderson A truly powerful and great film. Jane Alexander and Roxana Zal give teriffic performances. 5 stars
1/11/05 Ron Newbold Not a 5 but this is a movie that can be watched more than once 4 stars
9/20/03 Darryl Really good performance from Alexander 4 stars
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  02-Oct-1983 (PG)
  DVD: 07-Dec-2004



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