Tis the season for bummer movies about nuclear war. A normal reaction to modern politics—including tensions heating up between the United States, Russia, North Korea and the Middle East, with wars raging with no end in sight—is usually to watch something lighthearted as a distraction. Sometimes, though, I feel like watching a movie that mirrors society’s current woes, escalated to the most extreme outcome, has a sort of cathartic quality to it.
Testament is a film about a normal family in the 1980s in a small beach community up the California coast. Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander) must take care of her children after nuclear war breaks out. No one knows who is responsible, no one knows who launched the nukes first or even what countries were involved. Does it matter, really? Her husband is presumably killed in a blast that took out San Francisco and it’s up to her to take care of her children, plus a neighborhood child whose parents are missing.
Life plays out more or less normally for the family. Her oldest son, Brad, tries to take on extra responsibilities around the community, delivering messages, gathering food rations and trying to keep calm. Her daughter, Mary Liz, realizes, in a painful scene, that she’ll never experience true love in her life, because life just won’t last that long for her, and that she’s going to die a virgin. The youngest child, Scottie, doesn’t know how to process the fear he’s feeling.
Little things begin happening at first. Food resources begin dwindling. The gasoline runs out. Then, very young children and babies and old people begin to die from the radiation poisoning. The community tries to function normally, as though everything is okay, by watching a school play put on by the kids. Then, everyone starts getting sick. Cemeteries are overfilled. And one by one, Carol has to bury her children. The neighbor child that Carol took in, she says, one day just curled up into a ball without saying a word and never got up again.
A movie like this is hard to get right. The scene where Scottie dies, for example, could have veered too far into one direction without careful consideration: It could have either been an exploitative mess, a cheap ploy for dramatic reaction, or it could have been so glossed over so as to render its impact neutral. Instead, what happens is heartbreaking. Carol tries to keep it together as she cleans him up, then resigns herself to reading him a story in the last moments of his life. When she finally loses it, she lashes out at everyone during his funeral in the backyard, unable to find his stuffed animal that she wants to be buried with him.
The end of Testament represents a small glimmer of hope as Carol, her son and another young boy who survived “celebrate” life by eating a few crackers smeared with peanut butter with candles stuck in them. Her hope is that they remember everything. The good, the bad and the misery. That everything that happened to them is important and that it has to mean something.
Testament is anchored by Jane Alexander’s performance. The movie is well made, the direction courtesy of Lynne Littman is expert, and the score by James Horner perfectly sets the mood, but without Jane Alexander’s lead, contextualizing the unbearable feeling of loss in the midst of the end of civilization, is what makes it as good as it is.
When you watch a movie like Testament, sometimes you have to wonder, “What the hell was the point of all that?” The depression of the film is nearly relentless, but there is an omnipresent hopefulness throughout, like when Carol dances with her son Brad to a Beatles song. The point is, I guess, to show us what we have to lose. The world is constantly on the verge of some new holocaust, with weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other. The idea of mutually assured destruction is goddamned maddening and it’s a go-to contingency plan for many of the world powers that yield such destruction at their fingertips. Testament provides us with an almost documentarian insight into what might actually happen in such a scenario. And so watching it play out realistically is terrifying. It should be required viewing for most people. It’s a perfect thesis statement on the evil and futility of war. The end of the world won’t be some Mad Max-ian badassedry, it will be solemn and heartbreaking.
Is Testament painful to watch? Yes, and it will haunt you long after it’s finished. It’s also a powerful, well-made movie with an undeniable message about the truth of war and the human spirit. It’s a must-see movie.