Testament begins on a day like any other day. In an archetypal nuclear family, Mom, Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander,) grapples with costumes for the school play and the torture of mastering the Jane Fonda Workout.
Dad, Tom (William Devane,) bikes to keep trim before breakfast, competing in a friendly spirit with his fourteen-year-old son, Brad (Ross Harris) then dashes off to work with no time for taking out the garbage.
We then spend two days and one night with the family watching them interact, particularly the parents, with one another.
These are decent, churchgoing people for whom life’s biggest problems are expanding waistlines and selecting the proper computer game for their three kids’ birthdays.
Suddenly there’s a blinding light. Sirens. The President is on TV. The electricity goes off in the middle of his State of the Union message. There’s been a nuclear attack – the thing everybody dreads but ignores.
People are in the streets, confused, clutching at their children. Chaos reigns, followed by looting and long lines at the gas pumps.
Elsewhere, there’s been worse damage – actual blasts, radiation, contamination. But here, they are “luckier.” Now they must learn to cope . . .
Some families head for survival camps in Canada. Others huddle in the church for warmth and friendship.
Slowly, as the days drone by, town services diminish, the townspeople start dying from radiation poisoning, even the police surrender to fear.
At a time when humanity seems extinct, little things like vacation snapshots in old photograph albums take on an unprecedented importance. Flashlight batteries become talismans to live by.
One by one, the lights go out, the cemeteries run out of space, and even the bravest survivors must prepare for the ways in which they plan to leave behind some proof of their existence.
And through it all, there is the heart-stopping desperation that comes when you know it’s all over for the children.
This sounds like the ultimate downer among motion picture tearjerkers, but the big surprise is that Testament is a life-affirming work of great optimism and hope.
Lynne Littman, a marvellous young documentary filmmaker making her feature film debut with this exemplary gem of a movie, obviously wants to instruct us all. It is not her intention to drive anyone to suicide through despair.
Testament accomplishes a great deal without ever getting preachy or dragging its audience into a lot of confusing concerns about global politics. In fact, you never even see the violent destruction of a nuclear attack.
Instead, Littman focuses on the human aspects of such a tragedy and the instinct for survival. She is aided immeasurably by a brilliant cast of luminous performers.
Poetic and profoundly disturbing, Testament is the most valid moral plea for disarmament ever seen on a movie screen.
The fact that it was made for only $750,000 should give every money-wasting filmmaker cause for shame. It should also be required viewing in Moscow and Washington DC.
Mary Liz Wetherly
Rebecca de Mornay
J. Brennan Smith