Testament (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Dec 14, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Testament (Blu-ray Review)


Lynne Littman

Release Date(s)

1983 (November 4, 2022)


Paramount Pictures (Imprint Films/Via Vision Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

Testament (Blu-ray)



[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray release.]

The Cold War offered filmmakers many opportunities to deal with the threat of nuclear devastation in apocalyptic movies like On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, and Fail Safe. One of the most wrenching, in terms of the effect on a normal American family, is 1983’s Testament.

The Wetherlys are a suburban family. Tom (William Devane, Marathon Man) and Carol (Jane Alexander, Kramer vs. Kramer) have three kids—teenager Mary Liz (Roxana Zal, Firestorm), 13-year-old Brad (Ross Harris, Airplane!), and very young Scottie (Lukas Haas, Inception). Tom is big on keeping fit and delights in racing with Brad up hills on their bikes. Brad is never able to entirely keep up. Mary Liz practices the piano. Scottie is rehearsing for his part as a mouse in a school play. The first twenty minutes introduce us to these characters, who go about their hurried daily lives like every other middle-class family.

Their routines are interrupted one day when, with only the briefest of warnings, a nuclear bomb explodes in nearby San Francisco. A blinding white light is the only indication that the worst nightmare has just begun. Because they’re several miles from the big city, Carol, the children, and most of their neighbors have escaped instant annihilation. Now they need to figure out how to deal with their new reality.

Tom had gone to San Francisco on business that morning and Carol’s frantic efforts to reach him fail. The family is forced to accept that they may never see him again. The balance of the film deals with the aftermath of the explosion. The town’s residents cope with isolation and the gruesome effects of radiation as they begin to take their lethal toll.

This is a disaster film with no special effects, no scenes of buildings being blown away, no graphic images of people being vaporized. We have no idea what led to the nuclear holocaust, and it doesn’t matter. The film is horrifying in its understated simplicity. With the focus on a single family, it draws us in as we witness how they behave in a dire situation that can only have one outcome.

Jane Alexander plays the mother who has to hold the family together even as the insidious radiation does its silent damage. In the beginning, she hurries through her day at home, helps direct a children’s play, and deals with some marital tension. She totally transforms when terrible circumstances demand it. Now protector, counselor, and cheerleader, she must be strong for her kids’ sake. Alexander communicates volumes with her expressions. Even as her character consoles and comforts the kids, we see how terrified she is for their future.

Young Ross Harris turns in an extraordinary performance as middle child Brad. As conditions worsen, Brad checks up on neighbors regularly, riding his bike all across town. Harris has a sweet face but a stoic expression, suggesting that he will deal with the situation and not be beaten down by it. For a child actor, he conveys tremendous emotion and avoids overplaying. His is a subtle, highly effective performance.

Among the supporting players are Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves) and Rebecca De Mornay (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) as a young couple with a newborn, Lilia Skala (Lilies of the Field) as a piano teacher, Leon Ames (Meet Me in St. Louis) as the grandfatherly Henry Abhart, who tries to contact other survivors with his ham radio.

The most accurate adjective to describe Testament is “devastating.” Director Lynne Littman makes the film about humanity rather than politics or history. She wisely avoids the who and why of the nuclear attack, staying with the Wetherlys and their personal struggle. Working with a limited budget, Littman never distracts us with fancy production values. John Sacret Young’s screenplay is lean, straightforward, and increasingly harrowing. Interestingly, Testament was released in theaters only two months after the two-part The Day After, about similar subject matter, was aired on television. In the UK, Threads—equally-harrowing—aired the following year.

Testament was shot by director of photography Steven Poster on 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented theatrically in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Imprint Blu-ray features a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Clarity and contrast are very good, with details nicely delineated in the toys strewn around the living room, facial wrinkles on the adults, patterns in clothing, and leaves on trees as Tom and Brad bicycle through their neighborhood. The film opens with a bright color palette. As the story progresses, primary colors are fewer and are replaced by darker hues. The nuclear explosion in San Francisco is represented by a sudden blinding white flash. A night scene of Carol kneeling over the grave of a loved one has a bluish cast.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono LPCM. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The early scenes feature ambient household sounds. Because the film limits its view to a single town, there are no explosions or other sounds of mass ruin. The gradual silence that overtakes the town as more people fall victim to radiation poisoning is eerie. In the beginning, we hear video games, a TV, and kitchen appliances, but when the power is lost, the house becomes disturbingly silent. James Horner’s score is melancholy and appropriately parallels the dark mood of the story.

Bonus materials include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Amanda Reyes
  • Audio Commentary with David J. Moore
  • Testament 20 (26:41)
  • Testament: Nuclear Thoughts (12:34)
  • Timeline of the Nuclear Age (2:39)
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:07)

Television movie expert Amanda Reyes refers to Testament as the “kind of film that stays with you.” It was released toward the end of the Cold War. She speaks about life in America during that era. There were heightened tensions about nuclear devastation because of the recent nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Many people at the time feared that nuclear war was inevitable. Director Lynne Littman was primarily a documentary filmmaker. Testament was originally made for the one-hour TV program American Playhouse, and it has all the markings of a made-for-TV film. When the program lost one of its backers, additional funding was secured and Littman expanded the film to feature length. Testament was shot in 28 days at a time when most TV movies were shot in two weeks. Career overviews of the actors are provided. The elimination of electronics in the film contributes to a sense of isolation. The film doesn’t show carnage. “The community is trying to hold onto something.” The opening portrays a typical American family. TV movies embraced female perspectives; the events in Testament are shown from Carol’s point of view.

David J. Moore, author of World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies, notes that, for his book, he watched and reviewed about 1,500 apocalyptic movies from assorted genres that deal with utter destruction and organized them into sub-genres. Testament falls into the sub-genre of domestic apocalypse: we see a set of characters in a normal day pre-apocalypse until something devastating happens. The viewers identify with the characters, who represent them. He discusses other apocalypse films such as Memoirs of a Survivor, The Day After, Threads, When the Wind Blows, and Alas Babylon. He reveals his personal reaction to Testament before and after he had children. He notes, “People are so civil in this movie; it’s amazing.” The genre is pessimistic. The protagonist is a “stark contrast” to an abstract villain of nuclear destruction or war. The film is adept at stirring up emotions and is “one of the greatest films in the genre.”

Testament 20 – This featurette reunites the actors who played the Wetherly children in Testament—Roxana Zal, Ross Harris, and Lukas Haas. Jane Alexander describes receiving and reading the script. Screenwriter John Sacret Young had to decide how dark to make the story and was on a strict deadline. The company filmed in an actual home, not on a set. The film had a documentary feel, primarily because of director Lynne Littman’s experience as a documentary filmmaker.

Testament: Nuclear Thoughts – Excepts from civil defense films such as Duck and Cover (1951) are shown. A group of contemporary schoolchildren watch Testament and then discuss the film with their teacher. A Hiroshima survivor talks about witnessing the atomic bomb blast and its aftermath. Photos of Hiroshima after the bomb had been dropped are shown. Jane Alexander and Kevin Costner discuss the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Timeline of the Nuclear Age – In a scroll format, highlights of the nuclear age are listed including that start of the Manhattan Project in 1942, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the development of the hydrogen bomb (1954), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), and other countries developing and acquiring nuclear devices. The timeline extends through 2004.

Testament is about the relentless onset of mass death into peoples’ lives and how it becomes the new normal. Survivors in the suburbs deal with fallout and radiation sickness as an encroaching, unseen killer makes its way through the town and the Wetherly family. It’s rare that a film makes such a powerful impact.

- Dennis Seuling