Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Great Post-Apocalyptic Film...with Kevin Costner?!

In late 1984, just about the time cowboy/actor/president Ronald Reagan was making his little funny about bombing Russia over a live microphone during a sound check, the American Playhouse movie Testament was debuting on PBS. It sounds somewhat like an oxymoron, but Testament is a small, subdued, quiet movie about nuclear apocalypse. There are no marauding biker gangs, gravel quarries, cannibals, mutant zombies, or underground retreats built by forward thinking, scientist survivalists. Heck, there's not even any burned out buildings or rubble. What there is is just a normal family in a small northern California bedroom community dealing with the end of the world.

The power of the film is in its simplicity and understatement. Unlike other cautionary tales of its ilk, like Threads or The Day After, Testament does not lean on visuals of physical destruction and keyloid scars to make its point, but instead uses quiet, ever-building, emotionally intense scenes that are much more soul-crushing. Nevil Shute's On the Beach attempted to work this same angle with limited success, but there were just too many characters and subplots, and as a result, some of its emotional power was diffused. Conversely, Testament is focused in concentric circles with the character of the mother, Carol Weatherly, squarely in the bullseye surrounded by her family and then the community at the outer edge. This structure enables the film to put all of its emotional eggs in the basket of the lead character who both observes and relays the emotional ripples that ebb and flow throughout the story.

The tremendous, but low key, power of this maternal role comes from both superior script writing and top-notch acting. Based on a short story by Carol Amen, the script was fleshed out by John Sacret Young who would go on to write for the critically acclaimed West Wing TV show, and co-create and write the sublime Vietnam series China Beach. Young begins the story by introducing the key community residents via an early morning bike ride taken by father and son, Tom and Brad Wetherly. This clever and efficient set-up will pay off continuously in the latter half of the film by showing the slow dissolution of the town and the fate of characters initially met by the audience on this first bike ride.

Young's script then returns to the Wetherly home where the rest of the family is introduced going about their morning routines including mother, Carol, daughter Mary-Elizabeth and youngest son Scottie. We then spend two days and one night with the family watching them interact, particularly the parents, with one another. Jane Alexander plays the mother, Carol, as a very organized, multi-tasker who keeps the family running smoothly and appears to be quite content when she's not having minor late night anxiety attacks about what to get her eldest son for his far-off birthday. Alexander is pitch perfect for this role and never resorts to melodramatic theatrics, nor does she play it like an invulnerable superwoman. It's a tightrope walk very few actors could accomplish, and Alexander's acting draws the viewer in without ever being showy or self conscious. Her scenes as a serious but loving mother are very easy to identify with as is her give-and-take relationship with her husband Tom, played by William Devane.

Devane is the most interesting casting choice of the ensemble as he had traditionally played the slick, villainous-type character back in the 70's in such roles as Marathon Man and Family Plot. In Testament, he plays against type as a nice, loving father, but there's still that undercurrent of drive that suggests he's a go-getter in his business and personal dealings. Alexander and Devaine's characters seem somewhat of a mismatch, and in a poignant scene later in the film, Alexander's character explains to her daughter that Tom was not the type of man she was looking for at all when she fell for him. It's attention to little details like this mismatch that brings a sense of realism to the film and keeps it from turning into smarmy, predictable melodrama.

The rest of the cast of the family is rounded out by Roxana Zal, Rossie Harris and Lukas Haas as the Wetherly kids. Zal was a superior child actress who won an Emmy for the landmark TV-movie, Something About Amelia and appeared in movies like Table for Five and River's Edge. Harris is immediately recognizable as the kid Peter Graves developed an unhealthy, but hilarious, liking for in Airplane! and finally there's human-gnome, Lukas Haas in his very first role, two years before he would play the Amish boy in Witness. Although the kids aren't the central focus of the story, all get an opportunity to act with the amazing Alexander, in both pre and post nuke segments, with each scene having its own distinct tone and pathos. Whether its the near horrifying visual of Alexander bathing the tiny, sick, vulnerable Haas in a bathroom sink, the honest talk about love and sex with Zal or the poignant dance with son Harris to the Beatles' tune All My Lovin', the kids hold their own, taking their cue from Alexander and matching her in low-key, emotional subtlety. The understated power of these scenes and many others is so incredible, I get misty just thinking about them.

Obviously, the director, Lynne Littman, knew what she had in both script and acting talent and did an excellent job of staying out of the way. There are no stylized shots, odd angles or excessive camera movement (although there is some great handheld work in a scene where Alexander is frantically searching for something) as it probably could not have added anything of value and been more of a distraction. This 'less is more' approach really showcases the performances where the attention needed to be focused.

"Your children are not dead. They are just waiting until the world deserves them."
-Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin

14 years before Atom Egoyan would cleverly use The Pied Piper of Hamelin as a metaphor for the goings-on in a small Canadian town in the film The Sweet Hereafter, John Sacret Young would employ it by setting Testament in the mythical northern California town of Hamelin which lay well north of San Francisco around the Ukiah area. Early on in the film, the local teachers and kids are in the process of adapting the Robert Browning story that bears their town's name into a play. While Testament is filled with effective, gut-wrenching scenes, when the children finally get to stage their play, it's emotionally devastating.

What's most incredible to me is how Testament's screenwriter could pack so much into a brief 90-minute movie. There are characters and subplots that I haven't even touched on (gas station owner Mike and his son Hiroshi are prime examples) which add tremendously to the film's emotional punch. And as the blog title suggests, even Kevin Costner, who appears in a small role along with Rebecca De Mornay, couldn't do damage to this post-apocalyptic movie. Surprisingly, he even displays some acting chops for a change!

Overall, Testament is pretty damn far from overproduced claptrap like The Postman, or the manipulative nonsense of The Road. What it is is a stripped-down, organically real, emotionally heartrending film that brings authentic pathos to the characters and the story without ridiculous contrivances. Unlike our former president, it takes the notion of armageddon quite seriously, but is never overly earnest or maudlin. The piece is anchored by a world-class performance from Jane Alexander who was Oscar-nominated for the film and brilliantly written by John Sacret Young. 
If Testament isn't the greatest post-apocalyptic art-house film of all time, it's easily the best one Costner's been in and deserves to be seen by any who venture into the serious side of the genre - or joke about dropping nuclear bombs. It's currently available on YouTube:

Final score: 10/10