Not with a Bang but with a Whimper: The Understated Nuclear Holocaust of Testament (1983)

Many films about the nuclear holocaust tend to be on the epic side, either depicting full on devastating attacks like The Day After (1983) or Threads (1984) or straight up fantasy/sci-fi like Mad Max (1979) or A Boy and His Dog (1975). Director Lynne Littman's film Testament (1983) is a different sort of story as the nuclear attack happens completely off screen and the narrative focuses on the plight of a single family in a small suburb outside of San Francisco.

The story is centered around the Wetherly family: Carol (Jane Alexander) the doting housewife who likes to volunteer at the local school, Tom (William Devane) a loving father and businessman who works in San Francisco, and their three children Brad (Ross Harris), Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), and Scottie (Lukas Haas). As the film begins the audience gets to see the home life of the family as they go about their daily business. It feels quite intimate and personal--these people are representative of most middle class families in America. Testament takes great pains to slowly establish the small town life before completely destroying it in the second act.

Everything ends in a flash--the children's cartoons are interrupted by a special bulletin with a reporter frantically talking of nuclear explosions on the east coast and suddenly a white light envelopes the household and the power goes out. That's all that is ever shown of the bombs dropping. Unfortunately, Tom stayed late at work in San Francisco that day and hasn't returned home yet. His fate is ambiguous and suddenly Carol is left alone in a rapidly changing world with her family.

Initially, it seems that the town has escaped disaster as they were far enough away from the blast range to avoid the firestorm, but a more sinister and invisible threat is still to come. The radiation from the nuclear bomb is on its way to the suburb, and there is nothing they can do to protect themselves. On top of that, the electricity is out and food and supplies are limited. One of the older residents Henry Abhart (Leon Ames) knows how to use a ham radio, but he is unable to contact anyone in any of the large cities or in the Bay area. The town is essentially cut off and they have to fend for themselves.

Testament is constructed in such a way that it feels like it could be a feel-good Lifetime movie about humanity overcoming desperate times and coming out the other side victorious. This is exactly how the film pulls the rug from under the viewers--no matter how much the characters try they cannot escape the inevitability of radiation poisoning. Carol stays strong for her children, the only visible indication of her stress being the grey streaks developing in her hair, but her love cannot shield them. Death comes for everyone and it gets to the point where they are burning bodies in the streets because the cemetery is full. There isn't much looting, and members of the town try to stick together but it's not enough.

Littman softens the mood somewhat by occasionally having the narrative focus on the smaller, more beautiful moments. The children that remain put on a school play for the Pied Piper of Hamelin which they were practicing before the bomb. Carol goes out on nature walks with her children. Everyone tries to live what little life remains. Sorrow permeates every facet of the film and as time passes one realizes that this will not have a happy ending. Most nuclear films play around with this theme as it's obvious that if the world is destroyed life will not be worth living even for the "lucky" survivors. Carol stands at a bonfire one evening, listlessly watching as they burn the bodies of the dead when she suddenly erupts into a rage, clawing at the earth screaming "Who did this, God damn you!" In the end it doesn't matter who was at fault as everyone will suffer just the same.

What is the point of showcasing this misery, one might ask? As a cautionary tale, to warn people that there is no coming back from nuclear destruction. Carol resigns herself to death at the end saying "We should remember it all... the good, and the bad." Even that is bittersweet because once everyone is gone there will be nobody left to remember anything.

--Michelle Kisner