Testament also came out the same year as The Day After (1983) and it is impossible not to compare the two films. Both came out at the same time and both offered a similar everyday treatment of nuclear war. Both were originally made as tv movies but both ended up being released to theatres. With The Day After, sponsors and advertisers began to panic when they heard in advance about the films no-holds-barred, grimly real presentation of nuclear war. The film was eventually aired but outside of America was released to theatres. In Testaments case, it was instead decided that the film was of such a quality that it was better off being shown theatrically rather than as a tv movie and it was released to cinemas the whole world over. The Day After ended up being the more high profile of the two, but it was also the most melodramatic, whereas in fact the less recognised Testament did it all with considerably less brouhaha and soap opera and considerably greater affect than The Day After.
What is noticeable about Testament is the quiet, almost understated sobriety of its treatment of the nuclear war theme. Perhaps this is the fact that it is the only among the genre of nuclear war films to be directed by a woman. The focus of the film is all on the family (director Lynne Littman makes the final dedication on the film to my family) and the film rarely opens out to concentrate on the wider community-level holocaust it does, but its greater focus is within the walls of the suburban home and the way in which the mother selflessly slaves to keep her children and the family unit together. As such, the film is almost entirely successful in circumventing a melodramatic handling. There are few of the cliché images of rioting, looting, anarchy and social devastation in the film; instead, it remains entirely mannered in almost all ways. The results are often powerfully moving. The quiet accumulations of the nightmare the images of Jane Alexander sewing Roxana Zal into a shroud while her voice on the soundtrack notes: Today my firstborn died, to her having to face young Lukas Haas who asks her to make the radiation go away with the truth that she cannot, or the poignant scenes where daughter Zal wants to know what making love might be like with the realisation that she never will experience it are very moving.
The film is significantly aided by the quietly believable performance of Jane Alexander. (Alexander was nominated for both that years Academy and Golden Globe Best Actress awards for the role). The film is also notable for being one of the earliest screen appearances of a pre-superstardom Kevin Costner in the small part of a neighbouring husband who decides to leave the town for safety. James Horners score does perhaps overly try to ply the emotions but the film is laudable in low-key lack of melodrama. It is doubtful if the real holocaust, should it come, would be faced with such creditable and orderly dignity.
Lynne Littman was previously a documentary-maker and had won an Academy Award in 1977 for Best Documentary Short. Aside from a couple of tv movies, she has never directed any other works outside of documentaries.