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Paramount Studios presents
"I'm so afraid. Nothing seems real. Everything looks the same. Maybe if I write it, it will help."
DVD ReviewHow many times has a scene moved you so much in the midst of a film that you had to pause it and go collect yourself before resuming?
Testament is one of those very few films capable of stirring such emotions. Originally conceived as a television project for PBS's American Playhouse, the end results were so stunning that Paramount bought the theatrical rights, making this 1983 project one of only a handful of made-for-TV movies to make such a leap; it went on to provide an excellent showcase for rising child actors Roxanne Zal (who would go on to star in Something About Amelia, another worthy telefilm) and Lukas Haas (Witness) as well as garnering a beyond justified Oscar nod for Jane Alexander.
As the film begins in a laid back California community, we're given access to the daily lives of the Wetherly family, an atypical American three-child household lorded over by Carol (Alexander) and Tom (William DeVanne). She's a playwright for the local school youngest son Scottie (Haas) attends; Tom's a businessman preparing for a trip to San Francisco.
A last minute phone call from Tom indicating he'll be home sooner rather than later sets up another relaxing evening at home. But while passing time watching Sesame Street, the signal goes to static, irritating older son Brad (Ross Harris) no end. But that lament is quickly forgotten when a local news anchor materializes on the screen advising viewers that the station has lost its network signal—and it's not just a case of "our technicians are working to clear up the problem"-type interruptions. Though sketchy, the U.S. appears to be under nuclear attack by unknown sources. Suddenly, another blast of static gives way to a stark, frightening emergency message graphic setting up a report from the White House. As Carol quickly but calmly reaches for the phone, a blast of extreme white light envelops the room.
Life would never be the same again.
With little or no information available from perhaps permanently silenced media outlets, residents gather at a nearby church where a mixture of reactions ranging from a local store owner's whinefest over a broken window to a proposal of martial law by local authorities are dispensed. Such complaints and petty disagreements are instantly rendered moot by the worries of a young mother who comments on her baby throwing up after being breastfed. It's an eerie indicator of things to come: people leaving town in the hopes of a less threatened existence, deaths begin to mount, and the re-establishing of daily routines are easily suggested but not easily accomplished.
Yet, in the midst of this chaos with a deluge of tears barely held back, Carol remains a study of control and grace; despite knowing of the sad, inevitable fate of her children, her forthright courage is an inspiration whether it be the calming of Scottie's fears of the unknown or expressing the joys of intimacy to a daughter that will never be able to experience it.
Beautifully adapted from Carol Amen's short story The Last Testament, Testament is not an easy watch, but for those putting aside their wariness over such alarming subject matter will experience a rush of emotions unlike any other film dealing with the horror of nuclear tactics. It's a given that you'll cry (Mother Wetherly singing My Little Nut-Tree to Scottie moved me to tears), but don't be surprised if you get angry as well—and I hope everyone seeing this film is motivated to urge government leaders and officials in every country of the world to use restraint. I swear, I became as outraged as Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove while witnessing the slow death of a once beautiful community at the hands of a man-made device that accomplishes nothing but mass murder.
Editorializing aside, Testament achieves brilliance from everyone in front of and behind the lens: Lynne Littman's intimate direction, future China Beach scribe John Sacret Young's excellent scripting (Dana Delany's Colleen McMurphy from the latter series bears more than a passing emotional resemblance to Carol Wetherly), striking scoring from James Horner, Steven Poster's vivid photography, and, of course, a phenomenal cast headed by Alexander's beautifully understated yet emotional lead with great support from Haas, Zal, and Harris; screen vet Leon Ames in one of his final performances as the eternally optimistic senior citizen lording over his ham radio for any information available; Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay as the young couple concerned over their baby's health; and Japanese character actor Mako as the loving father of a mentally challenged child.
One aspect of the film that I feel merits close attention is the refreshing lack of histronics that could have turned Testament into a disaster movie undistinguishable from the likes of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. What you can't and don't see is more frightening than what you do; it's a technique that the filmmakers of Testament carry to the hilt. There's no grotesque make-up, no major special effects to speak of, and the lingering aftermath of the attack is conveyed internally and emotionally rather than physically, which gives the movie an ethereal feeling... one you won't soon forget.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: Shot on a very tight budget, Testament outshines its cost-cutting in this impressive transfer that captures the brownish hues and de-saturated look that conveys the heartbreak of such a tragedy. Black levels are good, anomalies are all but nonexistent, and well defined sharpness add up to one of Paramount's better mid-priced offerings.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Though Dolby Digital mono, the dialogue is never faulty; the balance between highs and lows is notable and James Horner's score has great clarity despite not being in stereo.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Keep Case
Testament at 20 is an enjoyable, touching, and informative look back at the film that commences with a touching reunion of the now-grown Wetherly kids and covers virtually every creative and technical aspect of the project, featuring many of the creative principals including a surprising appearance by Kevin Costner, who has never forgotten the powerful affect the film had on him. In that vein, some memorable stories from other actors second such emotions, including Alexander's support for anti-nuclear activism and Haas' fears that kicked in whenever a plane flew by on the California set (along with the reading of a touching, heartfelt letter his mother sent to then-President Ronald Reagan that described the concerns of a 5-year-old kid who didn't want life to imitate art).
Reactions is a more brief but no less affecting look at the film from today's younger generation, courtesy of a showing to a group of California schoolchildren whose candid and articulate reactions will touch your heart. Additional comments from Alexander and Costner expand their thoughts conveyed in the previous piece and an unforgettable interview with a survivor of Hiroshima brings home the horror of a post-nuclear afflicted country in dramatic fashion.
Timeline of the Nuclear Age is a credits-roll feature giving a chronological rundown of nuclear history set to James Horner's hauntingly beautiful score.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThough no one wants to believe that another 9/11 or potentially more disastrous occurrence of terrorist-inflicted madness will occur in our lifetime, Testament is a gripping, emotional reminder (despite being 20 years old) that such a moment is possible when you least expect it. Despite its subject matter, it's not only a "must-see" film, it's a must-own DVD with terrific supplements that are so richly deserved. Highest recommendation.
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