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What to read, watch to feel good about America

By Alyssa Rosenberg

The Washington Post

To help you with your July 4 planning, here’s a roundup of great pop culture that can help us remember what’s best about the United States, and reminds us that even when things look grim, our cultural contributions are one of our great strengths at home, and our great gifts to the world at large.

Pure Americana: Roundups of patriotic pop culture often tend toward the bellicose, whether Rocky’s beating Ivan Drago, George Patton is winning World War II or Will Smith is punching an alien in the face in “Independence Day.” But my favorite distilled slice of Americana is “Bull Durham,” Ron Shelton’s gentle romantic comedy about a minor league baseball fan (Susan Sarandon) who has an affair with a player on her favorite team each summer, and ends up choosing between a talented but erratic young pitcher (Tim Robbins) and the seasoned catcher (Kevin Costner) who has been brought to the team to develop the younger man. “Bull Durham” has one of the great all-time scripts. And though it’s loving toward baseball, the film’s vision of the American idea recognizes that the sport is tangled up in race, masculinity, sex and class.

Revisit the Founding Fathers: The best book I’ve read on early America in recent years is “George Washington’s Journey,” by T.H. Breen. A chronicle of Washington’s visit to the colonies early in his presidency, it’s essentially a look at the invention of America, from the debates over what Washington’s title should be, to the development of a patriotic pageantry. Washington’s personality emerges from the pages with vivid shading. And at a moment when the presidency is being used as a stage for a kind of theater, it’s both wistful and reinvigorating.

Introduce a Kid to American History: Get them any of Ann Rinaldi’s historical novels. Rinaldi, who has written enough books to fill an entire kid’s summer, revisits America’s past through the eyes of teenagers, often girls. I’ve never read a bad one, but I would particularly recommend “A Break With Charity,” which explores the Salem Witch Trials; “Numbering All The Bones,” a wrenching look at the unfinished business of the Civil War; and “Finishing Becca,” about a servant working in the Shippen household during the Revolutionary War and witnessing the courtship of Peggy Shippen by the future traitor Benedict Arnold.

Craving a Western: Read “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne or watch David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water.” The former chronicles the Comanche struggle to remain independent from colonial expansion by both Spain and France, and then from the United States. The latter follows two brothers who are robbing banks in an attempt to pay off the mortgage on their mother’s land and the Texas Rangers who are trying to catch them. Both interrogate the romantic idea of the American West without abandoning it entirely. And both are terrific, propulsive stories.

A Rousing, All-American Sports Drama: You can’t go wrong with either Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” or Peter Yates’s “Breaking Away,” about an American obsessed with competitive cycling. Neither movie will lock you into a jingoistic narrative about America emerging triumphant over the rest of the world. Instead, they’re celebrations of passion and determination. “Breaking Away” has one of the all-time great opening sequences for a sports movie, too.

The Best Movie Ever Made About the Downfall of a President: There is only one choice: Andrew Fleming’s “Dick,” which recasts Deep Throat as two teenage girls (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, both magnificent) who stumble into a job as White House dog walkers. It is wonderfully silly, and a hilarious evisceration not just of Nixon (Dan Hedaya), but of all the adults who had anything to do with Watergate. As a bonus, Will Ferrell plays Bob Woodward.

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