Superb documentary on the Wyeths is also a paean to families

The Wyeths: A Father and his Family PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m. Writers: David McCullough and David Grubin. Host: Mr. McCullough. Producer/director: Mr. Grubin. ``Smithsonian World'' launches its No. 3 season on PBS with what may prove to be the No. 1 television program of the year on any network.

``The Wyeths'' is not merely a portrait of N.C. Wyeth, the talented father of five extraordinary gifted offspring, of whom Andrew is the most famous; it is a sensitive, moving, yet incisive study of America's foremost family of artists.

But ``The Wyeths'' runs even deeper - it is a paean to the institution of the family, focusing on love and understanding, but unhesitatingly including as well the imperfections inherent in nearly all human relationships.

N.C. Wyeth was the most famous illustrator of his time, creating vivid pictures for classic children's books and magazines as well as murals for many commercial organizations. He yearned to be accepted as a serious painter but seemed to divert a great deal of his own creative drive into molding his children and supporting their creative endeavors.

Most of N.C. Wyeth's story is told in this film through the reminiscences of his children and through his own letters and journals, joyous snapshots, and the family's own home-movie footage, taken mostly in their Chadds Ford, Pa., home, where much of this documentary was shot. The show's host, author-historian David McCullough, always manages to strike exactly the right note of intelligent yet probing respect for his subject matter. All the music was composed by Ann Wyeth McCoy, N.C. Wyeth's daughter.

This is a seamless film, flowing smoothly from one warm reflection to another, creating a deceptively simple air. But if examined closely, it is complex - filled with revealing attitudes of mixed emotion interspersed among the perfect memories. The Wyeth family, according to the eldest son, Nat, considers the film an ideal tribute to their father.

It is fortunate that executive producer Adrian Malone (of ``The Ascent of Man'' fame), who was also responsible for the gimmicky presentation of ``Cosmos'' and ``The Age of Uncertainty,'' recognized that ``The Wyeths'' called for simple, straightforward honesty rather than flashy graphics. Thus, we end up with a spare film that glows with the unadorned glory of truth and simplicity.

In his introduction, host David McCullough says: ``This is a film about growing up in an often magical household in which being creative and being alive were one and the same thing.''

David Grubin, the producer, says: ``This is a film about art. But it is also a film about life and spirit.''

``The Wyeths'' is a quiet, unassuming film about a man who was able to communicate his love of life and creativity to his children and inspire them to pass it on to future generations. It is an unostentatious film destined to become a classic and bound to win many awards for excellence in the days ahead.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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