Lynne Littman’s Testament is either a) a deeply moving portrait of human reaction to adversity, or b) one of the most depressing movies ever made. Then again, it may be—and probably is—both of those things.
If that sounds like an on-the-fence response, so be it: Testament is a frustrating film experience. Its many brilliant touches and scenes are almost lost in the movie’s steady descent into despair.
Director Littman (this is her first feature film) has taken an ordinary American family—smart young professionals with three kids—and placed them at the center of a nuclear war. They live in a small town outside San Francisco, so they’re not killed by the blast. But the radioactive fallout that ensues guarantees the inexorable creep of death.
These people are transformed, in a few seconds of blinding light, into (to borrow a phrase from director Samuel Fuller) “corpses that have temporary use of their arms and legs.” Any chance of survival is out of the question, so the only matter left is the way in which these people will play out the time remaining.
Initially, confusion and bewilderment reign; but Littman seems to be arguing that basic human decency is possible even in the most hopeless situations. This dignity is embodied by the family’s mother, played by Jane Alexander, who maintains a civilized, orderly structure to her family’s life, even if she’s not sure why.
The hopelessness of the situation does becomes rather numbing; and, as tragedy follows tragedy, one being to wonder exactly what Littman wanted to achieve with this film. The horror is so completely unrelieved—except for a moment when some precious batteries are used to play a Beatles song—that the movie is almost deadening.
Still, she captures some breathtaking things, such as the scene in which a boy rides his bike past a man carrying a large bundle in a garbage bag. The boy stops, and asks tentatively, “Is that Mike?” The man grunts an affirmative, and continues on his business, carrying the body away. The shock of the scene rests in its stunning matter-of-factness, in the way in which quick death has become a normal small town reality. The words echo through the air with a terrible chill.
That kind of behavioral detail is Littman’s strength. Her weakness is structure; Testament has only the relentless march to death to fill up its last hour.
Littman does allow her characters the triumph of having lived through their last days without debasing themselves, and the Jane Alexander character shares the movie’s viewpoint that someday, somehow, the way they behaved, this testament that they have created by living (and, in Alexander’s case, by writing in her journal) will make a difference to someone. If Testament reaches the audience it should reach, perhaps Alexander et al. will be proven right.
First published in the Herald, November 4, 1983
This was much-talked-about at the time, and it came at a tense moment in the Doomsday Clock watch; The Day After was also part of the moment. Amazingly, according to my review, this film opened at the giant Cinerama theater in Seattle. Alexander got an Oscar nomination; the cast also included William Devane, Kevin Costner, and Rebecca DeMornay.