Continuing this month’s focus on Women’s History Month and the important films directed by women, I am rather sure that the Oscar-winning director Lynn Littman is someone who many filmgoers have never heard of. She won an Oscar in 1976 for her documentary short film “Number Our Days,” but her 1983 feature film “Testament” offered a truly outstanding and moving film experience about a small town’s reaction to a massive nuclear attack on the East Coast and parts of California.
This passionate tale of common folks facing the horrendous tragedy of a thermonuclear attack was based on the story “The Last Testament” by Carol Amen, using a screenplay by John Sacret Young. The film starred Jane Alexander and William Devane as Carol and Tom Wetherly, parents of three young children in the small town of Hamlin, California.
The story begins as a normal morning in any town in America would. While Carol awakens and slowly gets her youngest son, Scottie and daughter, Mary Liz, ready for breakfast and off to school, her husband Tom and older son, Brad, are out for a quick morning bike ride. Everyone’s day goes smoothly for this loving family.
In the middle of the next day, while the Wetherly kids are watching a bit of after-school television, after some unusually poor reception, there is a sudden announcement of a national emergency—the explosion of nuclear devices on the East Coast near New York and on the west coast of California. Instantaneously there’s a quick flash of light and suddenly sirens are heard everywhere.
Darkness falls and the community of neighbors begins gathering at the elderly Abharts’ nearby home. There, Carol comforts her kids, as they wonder when their dad will come home. Also at this community gathering are their young neighbors Cathy and Phil Pitkin, played by Rebecca De Mornay and Kevin Costner, and their young baby.
These night scenes are expertly shot with the skimpiest bit of candlelight, flashlights or lantern. Cinematographer Steven Poster captures the mood of fearful anxiety with subtle effectiveness. James Horner’s gentle film score complements the film’s moods in a similar manner.
In the days after the initial attack life goes on, filled with anxiety, long lines at grocery stores and gas stations, and local officials try to console families at church gatherings. Many gather at Henry Abhart’s (Leon Ames) home, who’s an avid ham radio operator who gets bits of news from other communities and survivors. Carol tries comforting her kids’ worries and fears what happened to their dad who was away on business in San Francisco. She plans a day’s picnic with them, and the kids participate in a school play that features little Scottie (Lucas Haas in his debut role). But slowly people begin dying of radiation sickness.
This film is such a non-sensationalized, heartfelt story. It was honored with an Oscar nomination for best actress for Jane Alexander’s powerful performance as the loving, sincere and comforting mom, Carol Wetherly. With her passionate voice-over narration of parts and three essential scenes with each individual child, her performance is simply transcendent. In one of the most memorable scenes, her eldest child, Mary Liz asks her mom about making love. Carol explains that Mary Liz’s dad was not exactly her perfect choice but, “When you love someone, you wanna’ be as close to them as you can get. You make love … and you feel almost like the same body. Like it was intended. You have a space that person fills it up.”
In another scene, Carol gently bathes her five-year-old son Scottie, and as she tenderly dries his body, we notice a patch of blood on the towel underneath his frail body. Then, finally, in a rather joyous scene with her son Brad, they dance by the light of their fireplace to the Beatles song “All My Loving.”
This film demonstrates how effectively female filmmakers are at telling stories of strong women.
“Testament” has been a haunting experience since my first viewing of this film years ago. In Roger Ebert’s original film review he notes his overwhelming reaction, commenting that “Testament” made him cry. On his second viewing of the film he noted, “I was able to see more clearly that the movie is more than just a devastating experience, that it has a message with a certain hope.” In my perspective, “Testament” has the same emotional, humane impact that Stanley Kramer’s classic 1959 adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel “On the Beach.”