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Testament

DVD cover
Directed by Lynne Littmann
Produced by Jonathan Bernstein
Written by Carol Amen (story)
John Sacret Young
Starring Jane Alexander
William Devane
Ross Harris
Roxana Zal
Lukas Haas
Leon Ames
Mako
Music by James Horner
Cinematography Steven Poster
Editing by Suzanne Pettit
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) December 9, 1983
Running time 90 min.
Country U.S.A.
Language English

Testament (1983) is a drama film directed by Lynne Littman and starring Jane Alexander. Originally produced for the PBS series American Playhouse, it was given a theatrical release instead (although PBS did subsequently air it a year later). Coincidentally, Paramount Pictures, the film's theatrical distributor, is now also the distributor for all PBS Home Video product.

The film tells the story of how one small suburban town near the San Francisco Bay Area slowly falls apart after a nuclear war destroys outside civilization.

Based on The Last Testament by Carol Amen, the film script was by John Sacret Young, who would later create the television series China Beach. Jane Alexander was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.

Plot summary

The movie follows the lives of the Wetherly family – husband Tom (William Devane), wife Carol (Jane Alexander), and children Brad (Ross Harris), Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), and Scottie (Lukas Haas), who live in the fictional suburban town of Hamlin, California. The town is a pleasant, well-to-do community within commuting distance to San Francisco, where Tom works.

On one sunny, seemingly routine afternoon, Carol, who is a stay-at-home mother and volunteer for school functions (such as directing the play son Scottie is performing in and daughter Mary Liz is providing piano accompaniment for), listens to an answering machine message from Tom telling her he's on his way home for dinner, as Scottie watches Sesame Street (another PBS program). The show is suddenly replaced by white noise as the signal is lost, and teenage son Brad hits the television, thinking it to be the cause of the problem. But suddenly a news anchor comes on to announce the true cause:

"This is San Francisco. We have lost our New York signal. Radar sources confirm the explosion of nuclear devices, there in New York, and up and down the East Coast. Ladies and gentlemen, this is real. This is ..."

The anchorman is then cut off by the Emergency Broadcast System tone. The announcer states that the White House is interrupting the program and asks people to stay off their phones. As the speaker introduces the President of the United States (who is never seen), the phone rings but goes dead just as Carol answers it. The flash of a nuclear detonation is then seen through the window, and Carol huddles with her children on the living room floor as the town's air raid sirens sound.

Hamlin survives unscathed because apparently the town is far enough away from San Francisco and its nearby suburbs to avoid heat and blast damage. The movie never sets up any background to explain the attack; none of the characters speak of any national or international events prior to the attack.

That night, frightened residents meet at the home of Henry Abhart (Leon Ames) and his wife Rosemary. Henry, an elderly ham radio operator, has made contact with survivors elsewhere (mostly in rural areas and internationally). He tells Carol, who has relatives in Chicago, that he has been unable to reach any station east of Keokuk, Iowa, and another operator said an errant bomb hit Yosemite National Park because trees and rocks are falling from the sky. He also reveals grim news about the entire Bay Area, southern California and most major U.S. cities being "radio silent".

Despite Abhart's best efforts, neither the cause of the attack nor the responsible parties are ever identified. Rumors from other radio operators (from Santa Rosa to South America to Canada) range from a Soviet preemptive strike to terrorism. It is also not learned whether the United States launched a counterstrike.

A school play about the Pied Piper was in rehearsal before catastrophe hit, and, desperate to recapture some normalcy and to divert the children's attention from a reality too horrible to contemplate, the town decides to go on with the show. In the earlier rehearsal scenes, life was normal, with the future shining brightly in the children's faces. Now, as the parents watch the performance, they see no future for these beautiful innocents.

Although Hamlin escapes any bomb damage, the town experiences significant radiation from fallout. Residents start dealing with the loss of municipal services and shortages of food and gasoline, and eventually the loss of loved ones to radiation sickness. As the movie progresses, wood for caskets is instead used for funeral pyres as the dead accumulate faster than they can be buried.

Scottie succumbs first, and is buried in the back yard, but Carol screams at the Catholic priest (Philip Anglim) who starts the funeral that she won't bury Scottie without his favorite teddy bear. Several scenes later, Carol is seen sewing bed sheets, which as the camera cuts to a wider view reveals is a burial shroud for her daughter, Mary Liz.

Although people die throughout the movie, the movie hints that many are children. Older residents seem to fall victim to rapid dementia. One young couple, Phil and Cathy Pitkin (Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay), leave town after losing their infant, in hopes of finding safety elsewhere (there is mention of survival camps in northern Canada, despite the difficulty of reaching distant locations).

In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Carol listens to Tom's voice on the answering machine one last time before she removes its batteries for other uses.

Brad is forced into an early adulthood, from helping his mother to taking over radio duty for Henry Abhart, who also sickens and dies from radiation sickness. The family essentially adopts a mentally handicapped boy named Hiroshi when his father, Mike, who runs the local gas station, dies. Before the catastrophe, Tom would take Hiroshi fishing with the other Wetherly kids.

Carol, Brad and Hiroshi attempt suicide by sitting in the family station wagon with the garage door closed (carbon monoxide poisoning), but Carol cannot bring herself to do it. The movie ends with the three sitting by candlelight for a birthday, but the cake is a graham cracker. Hiroshi presents Carol with Scottie's teddy bear, but does not say where he found it. When Brad asks his mother what they should wish for, she answers, "that we remember it all ... the good and the awful." She blows out the candle, and the movie cuts to an old 8mm silent film of a surprise birthday party for Tom. He blows out the candles on his cake as the movie ends.

See also

External links

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