During the mid-1980s, there was a brief output of productions that focused on what life would be like in the aftermath of a nuclear war. These films were fueled by anxiety from the left that President Ronald Reagan was recklessly pointing the world into an apocalyptic arms race. Of course, that didn’t happen, but the legacy of that fear did create some provocative works of art.
The best of this genre was the 1983 drama “Testament,” which was originally meant for broadcast on PBS’ “American Playhouse” but which snagged a theatrical release. Shot on a low budget, the film eschewed massive special effects in favor of a tighter emotional response to the gradual collapse of societal structure following an off-screen nuclear war.
Set in a San Francisco suburb, the film is anchored in the Wetherly home: husband and father Tom (William Devane) is a bit obnoxious, but his family happily tolerates his competitive drive and abrasive humor. Wife and stay-at-home mother Carol (Jane Alexander) is a bit harried over her duties as the director of the school play, and at first she doesn’t quite seem to have a handle over the three kids: a daughter who take piano lesson, a son who is constantly pushed by his father into long bicycle races, and a younger son who treats his toy figurines as real people.
All seems well one day when Tom calls in to say that he’s on his way home from the city. But, then, a surprise interruption of “Sesame Street” brings a newscast talking about nuclear devices being dropped along the East Coast. The flash of a nuclear detonation occurs outside of the home, but there doesn’t appear to be any physical damage to the property or the community.
But, then, the extent of the damage starts to become evident. An elderly ham radio operator reports being unable to contact anyone east of Iowa. Tom never arrives home, nor do the parents of a neighboring boy who takes shelter with the Wetherlys. Electricity had died and there is no way to revive the power source, and soon food and water start to become less plentiful. Gasoline is in short supply, garbage is no longer collected and the local police force disappears. Children appear to be the most vulnerable to the radioactive fallout, and the local cemetery is soon so crowded that funeral pyres are built to burn the growing number of the dead.
“Testament” is a tragic work that slowly and methodically details how a once-tight community is wrenched apart by deprivation and isolation from the outside world. The emotional core of the drama is the brilliantly understated performance by Jane Alexander, who received an Oscar nomination (and, quite frankly, deserved the award more than Shirley MacLaine’s screechy “Terms of Endearment” overacting). The film wisely avoids giving Alexander big melodramatic moments and allows her to bring a steely but heartbroken strength to keep her family together amid impossible circumstances. One scene in particular, where Alexander quietly sews a handmade shroud that will encase one of her deceased children, is a masterwork of subtle acting – Alexander achieves more power with no words and minimal movement as she steadfastly prepares to let go of a young life that her maternal power could not preserve.
“Testament” was directed by Lynne Littman, a nonfiction filmmaker who made her narrative feature directing debut here. Sadly, the misogyny of 1980s Hollywood prevented her from creating more narrative works – her intelligent handling of a volatile subject made this one of the best-directed films of that decade.