This Early ’80s Kevin Costner Disaster Movie Is Shockingly Accurate

The Big Picture

  • Testament is a character-driven disaster movie that relies on relatable everyday situations and the fear of the unseen to instill anxiety.
  • The film portrays the unraveling of society and the despair of regular people faced with the aftermath of a nuclear blast.
  • Testament is a realistic and terrifying depiction of the effects of radiation poisoning, highlighting the vulnerability of all people, regardless of age or status.

As far as disaster movies go, 1983’s Testament is a far cry from some of the sweeping and epic apocalyptic films that most of today’s directors specialize in. It has almost no special effects and very little action, but the message that resonates is just as powerful as a massive asteroid headed for Earth or a pandemic contagion. It is a slow, gut-wrenching burn that will have you rethinking what is important to you by the time the final credits roll. It also has a terrific starring ensemble cast including Jane Alexander in what was an Oscar-nominated role, a versatile William Devane, and a very young Kevin Costner before he became the Kevin Costner that we know and love/hate today. In Testament, he is just a struggling young actor who is trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood just like all the other aspiring performers who head West in search of fame and fortune. He is just a supporting player in the film, but for the handful of scenes that he does appear in, you can definitely tell that his star will soon be on the rise.

‘Testament’ Is a Disaster Movie Without Special Effects

Jane Alexander in Testament (1983)
Image Via Paramount Pictures

In the 1980s, every Tom, Dick, and Harry producer and director in Tinseltown was doing their best to capitalize on the perpetually simmering existential fear that came with the Cold War and the nuclear threat that would bring about a mutually ensured destruction between the United States and the Soviet Union. It became the theme of the decade and the looming possibility permeated the industry. But Testament is a massive outlier in that it is 100% character-driven and more of a drama than a true “the San Andreas Fault is breaking open” kind of movie. At the same time, it maintains that apocalyptic nuclear dread that has been in place since the 1950s.

In the 1940s during World War II, a guy named J. Robert Oppenheimer made man’s ability to harness the power of the atom and weaponize it a reality. Maybe you’ve seen an IMAX biopic on the subject recently? In the adaptation from the play The Last Testament by Carol Amen, the movie is so deftly paced and directed by Lynne Littman, that the fear actually comes more from what you don’t see on screen. It is the relatable everyday machinations of regular people thrown into the unthinkable that instills angst and anxiety. And perhaps even more frightening is how accurate it feels when the fallout (both literally and figuratively) from the explosions begins to settle in within a close-knit community. The slow unraveling of the society’s infrastructure and the despair of the people is palpable because it could be any town in the world. Maybe even yours or mine.

RELATED: Love it or Hate it, ‘Titanic’ Is Still the Most Important Disaster Movie Ever Made

What Happens in ‘Testament’?

A woman and two children watch an alert on TV while a nuclear blast can be seen out the windows in 'Testament.'
Image via Paramount Pictures

In the small suburban town of Hamlin, located somewhere close to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Weatherly family is shown in the middle of a normal and hectic morning as mother Carol (Alexander) is busy getting three young children ready for school. Bead (Ross Harris), Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), and Scottie (Lukas Haas) are bouncing off the walls trying to eat a little breakfast before catching the bus for school. Husband Tom (Devane) is struggling with his tie and is late for work. It is the quintessential picture of a middle-class family going about their everyday lives. One afternoon after school, an emergency message comes on the TV, and within a matter of minutes, there is an enormous, blinding flash of light off in the distance. We learn that it was a nearby nuclear blast and from that point on, their lives are anything but normal. Tom is in San Francisco for business, leaving Carol and the kids to scramble about trying to find out what exactly has happened. They discover that the West Coast and the rest of the country have been decimated by nuclear missiles and that the holocaust is upon them.

Kevin Costner Plays a Supporting Role in ‘Testament’

Kevin Costner and Rebecca DeMornay as Phil and Cathy Pitkin with a newborn baby in 'Testament.'
Image via Paramount Pictures 

Hamlin has a small population but ranges in age from the very young to the very old. Costner is a newly married man in his early 20s and a neighbor of the Weatherly family named Phil Pitkin. He and his wife Cathy (Rebecca DeMornay) have just had a baby boy. Remember, this is the newcomer Costner, which is far from the swaggering, confident rancher John Dutton on Yellowstone, or even the intrepid Eliot Ness from The Untouchables released just four years later. After a missile hits the Bay Area, the fabric of society starts to unravel, and radioactive fallout starts to take its toll on the population of the town. The best moment of Costner’s turn as Phil Pitkin comes as he’s walking down the street in the rain, dazed and carrying a small drawer. Carol approaches him and asks him what he is doing, and Costner reveals that their newborn son has succumbed to radiation poisoning, and he is planning on using the cabinet drawer as a casket. It’s a tragic sequence that punctuates the bleak tone of the movie, and Costner, who only appears in four scenes delivers one of the most sobering and memorable moments in a film that aims to get the viewer as close to a nuclear holocaust as it can.

‘Testament’ Is Terrifyingly Accurate

A group of people on a couch watching TV in the 1983 movie, 'Testament.'
Image via Paramount Pictures 

There are prototypical Hollywood disaster films made by directors like Roland Emmerich including The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and the Independence Day movies, and then there are the more realistic disaster films like Testament. With Emmerich’s films, he relies on the shock and awe of CGI-crafted 300-foot tidal waves and the earth literally opening up beneath our feet. Sometimes, less is more, and that is what makes Littman’s apocalyptic film so scary. Aside from the bright flash of light that lets the audience know that nuclear war has broken out, there isn’t a single stunt or special effect in the entire movie. It’s the normalcy that gets you. It’s realizing that these are people like us who are slowly and painfully dying not from an alien laser, but from the agonizing effects of radiation poisoning. It’s in the fact that the radiation doesn’t discriminate and takes the lives of children just as easily as a soldier on the front line. If you are a child of the ’80s, then this film really rubs against everything that you were afraid of living during the Cold War, and the heightened awareness that a push of a button could make all these tragic and terrifying events a reality. The fact that Kevin Costner makes one of his earliest appearances on-screen is cool, but the unflinching message of the movie is far more important than a single man.

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