The Men Who Built America isn’t quite a documentary, and it isn’t quite a series of historical reenactments. It occupies some strange space between the two, and at first, the novelty of that arrangement is quite jarring. Many of the live action clips are too short to get into any kind of familiar rhythm and many of the comments from the peanut gallery of noted business tycoons appear out of left field. After an episode of this format, however, the tone and shape of the show not only start to feel natural, they start to emerge as The Men Who Built America’s greatest assets.
The History Channel miniseries is keenly aware of how fascinating the history it’s presenting will be to its target audience. The episodes don’t need to manufacture their own intrigue or drama because John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and their fellow titans of industry supplied more than enough subject matter when they battled it out and pushed their companies to stunning percentages of the market share and stunning levels of ruthless and efficient productivity around the turn of the century. By balancing well-executed historical reenactments with voiceover work and commentary on the whats and whys, The Men Who Built America is able to seamlessly transition between stories and time periods without ever coming across as scatterbrained or disorganized. In fact, the overall narrative has a really nice rise and fall structure to it that should appeal to a wide base.
From one perspective, The Men Who Built America is clearly a very highbrow show. It deals with buying companies, streamlining entire industries, making secret complicated deals behind closed doors and politics of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. From another perspective, however, The Men Who Built America has very human and familiar shades to it. It’s about work, love, betrayal, hatred, oneupsmanship, watching something beautiful turn vicious and watching something vicious slowly evolve into a public good. Everyone can identify with a man’s desire to make his mark on the world, and the friends and enemies that pursuit can create. Consequently, the miniseries is able to balance appeal elements in order to please a wide cross section without ever talking down to even the smartest of viewers.
Last year, History Channel pushed hard in the historical drama direction with the incredibly popular Hatfields & McCoys. With a slew of award nominations and gigantic ratings, that miniseries proved people will flock to the History Channel for the right story. By almost any measure, The Men Who Built America wasn’t quite as popular, but in a way, it may actually be a better sign of History’s future. This brilliant and fascinating lens into the past is the type of product filmmakers at the cable channel should be able to churn out on a semi-regular basis, and if those subsequent results are even half as good as this, we will all be in for hours and hours of great programming.
The special features on The Men Who Built America don’t exactly offer hours and hours of great programming, but they are a fun enough watch. Each of the major players, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt and Ford, are all given their own mini specials that highlight a particular portion of their personalities. So, Ford’s plays to his populism, Carnegie’s to his poor background, Rockefeller to his ruthlessness, Morgan to his elitism and Vanderbilt to his almost otherworldly sense of competition.
Vanderbilt also gets a second special focusing on his rise to power, which is actually the single greatest special feature because of the gap in content it fills. The miniseries mostly deals with Vanderbilt as an older and already powerful man. Here, his path is traced from the son of a ship owner to a ship owner himself, to a fleet owner, to a train owner, to a railroad owner to the Grand Central Station builder to one of the most powerful men in the history of the world. Like with all of the other titans, his rise makes him seem even more appealing and impressive.
In addition to the above content, there’s also a more general special on the willingness to take risks and the sense of self-assurance all of the men who built America share with one another. After sitting through the miniseries, it might not offer many new insights, but for bigger fans, it’s still more than worth a watch.
Length: 360 minutes
Release Date:January 23, 2013
Starring: Eric Rolland, Tim Getman, Adam Jonas Segaller, Justin Morck
Directed by:Patrick Reams