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Old Fashioned Heroes

Hollywood and PBS get religion with two of our greatest heroes: Spidey and George Washington.

12:00 AM, Jul 2, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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WHILE CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS are tripping over one another to see who can most vociferously pledge allegiance "under God," two straws in the popular-cultural wind further confirm the return of traditional values: No less a Hollywood vehicle than the new Spiderman movie depicts a pious family in a favorable light; and PBS will celebrate the Fourth of July with a splendid documentary on the least hip of our Founding Fathers, George Washington himself.

Spiderman, as most of the universe knows, is a wall-crawling, crime-fighting superhero who begins as a high school nerd named Peter Parker. Bitten by an irradiated spider on a school field trip, Peter develops remarkable arachnid powers, which he puts to use doing good deeds around New York City. This altruism doesn't come from the spider, though. It comes from Aunt May and Uncle Ben, the elderly relatives who raised Spiderman in a working-class bungalow in an outer borough.

This modest home is presented as plain but loving, and its benignity is connected to its occupants' religion. Aunt May insists on grace before Thanksgiving dinner, and later we see her on her knees saying the Lord's Prayer. When we meet Uncle Ben, he's replacing a lightbulb, and the first words out of his mouth are, "God said, 'Let there be light.'" This laid-off worker has the Creator on his mind. The afternoon Uncle Ben is killed, his last words to Peter are the admonition, "With great power comes great responsibility."

What's striking is that this saintly couple are portrayed as attractive people, almost glowing. While they won't be mistaken for fully developed, realistic characters, they are played without irony--in a movie full of spoofs, like the cigar-chomping, freelancer-swindling newspaper editor and Spiderman's evil counterpart, a pastiche bad guy, at once a greedy--yes--defense contractor and Dr. Frankenstein.

So if Hollywood can make room in its store of stock characters for the religious person who's neither a hypocrite nor a fanatic nor a crook, can PBS actually go old-fashioned patriotic?

Not only can it, it has gone intelligently patriotic, with "Rediscovering George Washington," to air this week on many public television stations. Based on the "moral biography" by National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser, this 90-minute film emphasizes the qualities of character that made Washington the undisputed leader in a group of exceptional men. Antique virtues like valor in battle, civility, high principle, and constancy--culminating in our first president's epochal decision to relinquish power at the end of his second term--were the mortar that cemented the American experiment.

Produced and directed by Michael Pack, the film has the further merit of breaking the cloying Ken Burns mold. It makes imaginative use of Brookhiser as narrator, taking him, for example, to a family reunion of descendants of Washington's slaves, and to an exact reenactment of the great man's funeral at Mount Vernon on its bicentennial.

As if that weren't enough, check out the companion website produced by the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. It examines Washington's life "not merely as a matter of history, but as a model of what it means to be an American citizen." You'll find there a collection of Washington documents and images provided by the Gilder Lerhman Collection of New York, along with Charlton Heston reading the Farewell Address, Larry Arnn reading the last will and testament, and more. Don't miss Thomas Jefferson's recollection of Washington, penned in a private letter in 1814. It ends:

"These are my opinions of General Washington, which I would vouch at the judgment seat of God, having been formed on an acquaintance of thirty years. . . . I felt on his death, with my countrymen, that 'verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.'"

Happy Fourth!

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.