Judge Lacey Worrell takes us back to a time when fear of nuclear war abounded and Kevin Costner hadn't yet sullied his name with Waterworld.
"Make a wish…that we remember it all…the good and the awful."
When it comes to films about the aftermath of nuclear attacks, although The Day After got much more attention, Testament, a small, spare film about one anonymous suburban family's experience with nuclear war, is far more moving. Testament brings viewers back to the days when Sting sang about Russians, the U.S. had tense dealings with the Soviet Union, and all of us lived with the fear that a film like this might well be our eventual reality.
Facts of the Case
It is just like any other day for Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander, The Cider House Rules). She deals with the mundane details of suburban life: getting her three children ready for school and feeling annoyance that her husband (William Devane, 24) is off bike riding while she is stuck taking the garbage to the curb. That afternoon the world she knows is shattered when it is announced that several nuclear bombs have been detonated across the U.S., throwing Carol's small, tightly knit community into chaos. In the aftermath of the attack Carol struggles to hold what is left of her family, and her own sense of sanity, together as she faces loved ones' deaths and the resulting uncertainty.
When I first saw this movie, I was around 9 or 10 and it was running on HBO; I can remember identifying with Roxana Zal's character, the oldest daughter, who was not much older than I was. Watching it 20 years later as a mother, I can appreciate Carol Wetherly's plight as a mother even more. I felt the same watching Testament in the present day as I did several years ago watching a brief scene in Titanic where a mother softly sings her children to sleep as ocean water seeps into their stateroom. It is every parent's nightmare that circumstances could ever veer so far out of control that there is no way to protect her children from the inevitable.
This is Carol's plight. No amount of laundry she can do, meals she can cook, or reassurances she can give will make everything right for her children again. The world as they have known it has gone, and although Carol does everything she can to continue to be a strong force in her children's lives, she is painfully aware that an even stronger force is at work, one about which she can do nothing.
I love the conclusion of this film; it gives the viewer just enough information, and a little bit of hope, allowing the viewer to make up his or her own mind about what happens next. True, the tragedy faced by Carol is very real, but her willingness to endure despite her very real suffering is heartbreaking and yet uplifting.
The included documentaries, "Testament at 20" and "Testament …Nuclear Thoughts" are extremely helpful for those who do not remember the uneasy, at times terrifying, experience of living through the nuclear age, or for those who are too young to have experienced it firsthand.
In "Testament at 20," original cast members Lukas Haas, Roxana Zal (who looks as though she has barely aged), and Ross Harris reunite to discuss the filming process. Producer-director Lynne Littman gives the background of how the film came to be, recalls a rather colorful argument with William Devane, and shares still shots of the film. Kevin Costner even makes an appearance, and composer James Horner joins the group to discuss the film's haunting score. By far the most moving interview is given by Jane Alexander, who discusses the impact her role had on her personal belief system.
"Testament…Nuclear Thoughts," at 11 minutes long, is worth a look as well for the inclusion of a 2004 commercial starring Tom Ridge, the former Director of Homeland Security, as well as the classic 1950s commercial entitled "Duck and Cover" that implores citizens to prepare for nuclear attacks by dropping to the ground and covering their heads. A focus group is conducted featuring kids from the Renaissance Arts Academy in Los Angeles; the kids are shown the movie and asked to comment on it, and their reactions are interesting from the standpoint of a generation growing up with the threat of terrorism hanging over their heads. The only flaw in this documentary is the studious avoidance of any mention of Reagan's and Gorbachev's contribution to the end of the Cold War, something that, regardless of one's political beliefs, should not be discounted. For added context and perspective, also check out the brief "Timeline of the Nuclear Age," which covers the years from 1942, with the Manhattan Project, to the present day.
Zal played the lead role in the critically acclaimed made-for-television movie about incest, Something About Amelia. Little House on the Prairie fans will recognized Ross Harris, who gave the just-married Laura a hard time in the episode "The Nephews," and Knots Landing and 24 fans will enjoy seeing William Devane in an early role. Lukas Haas was clearly a very talented actor at a young age, going on to star in the drama Witness as a young Amish boy who is unexpectedly privy to police corruption. And Kevin Costner, of course, would go on to find tremendous success in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. Look for a young Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business) as his wife.
The film's transfer to DVD is unspectacular; the colors are muted and the picture is grainy. The sound is adequate, but there does not appear to be an improvement over what one might expect watching it on cable.
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.
Testament may address a rather somber topic, but it is an important film nonetheless. It is well worth your time.
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Scales of Justice
• "Testament at 20"
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