“Forget God! No one is touching him! No one is burying him until I find his bear! Do you hear me? Do you understand!?
That line, when it’s wrenchingly delivered by Jane Alexander in director Lynne Littman’s earnest little film, Testament, will break your heart and stir your anger like no other. It’s a line that brutally dismisses authority and tradition, is loaded with the accusation of betrayal, and grieves an innocent child who is yet another loss to the inevitable consequences of a nuclear attack.
1983 was notable for a brief period of nuclear war phobia. The States has instituted something called the Strategic Defense Initiative, which critics thought would offset the balance of nuclear weapons stability, bringing back the familiar fears from two decades previous. The same week I saw Testament in its very limited run in theatres, the television event was the two-part mini-series, The Day After,a project that dealt with the same subject, which had a larger budget but was far less effective.
Littman’s film, arguably the most viscerally powerful release of 1983, was an adaptation of a 1981 short story by writing teacher Carol Amen. PBS American Playhouse provided $500,000 for a 1 hour TV film, and then increased that to $750,000 to accommodate the 90-minute John Sacret Young script. Compare that budget with the budget of the smallest Best Picture nominee that year – Tender Mercies at $4.5 M.
The secret to Littman’s film is that there is no proselytizing. We don’t see the bomb explode; we don’t know the political circumstances or which megalomaniac (elected or dictator) started the deluge. We only see things from the point of view of the innocent who pay for the folly with their lives. Littman’s objective was neither to take sides with any the antagonists nor give us a FX display of annihilation. In her film, absolutely none of that matters. They are details that have no impact on the final results, rendered unimportant and foolish with no meaning once the deed has been done.
Carol (Jane Alexander) and her husband Tom (William Devane), along with their three children, are the centerpiece. Tom is 90 minutes away in San Francisco, at work, when the television interrupts programming to announce that contact with New York has been suddenly lost due to “nuclear devices.” Minutes later, the power goes out and a bright flash come through the window, triggering a long night of panic and confusion in the small suburb. Details and rumors trickle in via a neighbor’s ham radio, but uncertainty reigns.
Because the town was not in the blast zone, there is no bomb damage, but all services are cut off, nuclear fallout is everywhere, and people start dying – starting with the children. The inevitable decline of the community is reflected in the family, and the knowledge of what is ahead of them is reflected on Carol’s face as she puts up a brave front for the sake of the children. Alexander’s performance uses every color in her considerable acting palette – we only need to watch her, for everything we need to know about the event and the grim period ahead is all there as she sews burial shrouds for her own children, picks up a voicemail from Tom who informs her he is staying at work late, or when her teenage daughter – who has clued-in on what they face – asks her mother to tell her what sex was like.
It’s a crushing 90 minutes – even reviewing it is difficult – but an important one. Littman is cautioning us to keep our focus on what truly matters, that there are certainties in the physical world that politics and dogma can trigger, but cannot change or undo.
Testament had an extremely limited release but was available on home video the following year. The 2004 special edition DVD is also out of print, and the film is difficult to find, which is a shame. It deftly cuts away all the trappings and debatable red herrings caused by smoke-and-mirror factions on all sides of the nuclear argument and lays the primal questions squarely in the viewer’s lap. How would you feel? What would you do? How would you answer your daughter should she ask that question because she knows she will never have the experience? Or what would be your response be to the priest who is trying to get the rapidly increasing number of dead buried as quickly as possible, and you cannot find your dead child’s teddy bear?
Sometimes cinema is more powerful in the hands of a solid, sensitive director with a pinpoint vision and a powerhouse actor who can stab straight into the protected places in our humanity that all the visual effects, set pieces and melodramatic histrionics in the world cannot reach. Testament is an example of such rare magic.
(NOTE: Yes, that’s pre-fame Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay in the photo above)