American history fascinates me. Always has. It probably always will. The downside to reading and viewing so many history programs is that, after a while, you start to wander into the territory of historical revisionism – that futile, flawed political ideology that exists solely to distort some of the true details in order to spare some political group’s collective self-esteem. I haven’t read as much on the five subjects given exploration here in THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA so I couldn’t say how accurate the portrayals were; I can say that there were a handful of tidbits that I think were tinkered with just a bit. I’m not so sure that was done in any attempt to revise history as it was to tighten up the narrative structure of this miniseries. Still, the main thrust of the production – that America wasn’t so much discovered as it was built – comes center stage … the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
And I found most of it fascinating.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Vanderbilt. Rockefeller. Carnegie. Morgan. Ford.
Those are five names – five important names – of men who not only built their fortunes on the American Dream but also helped build America, giving the still-fledgling nation a purpose to exist in the world. Their collective efforts ushered our entire planet into the Industrial Revolution, and, as their activities overlapped with one another’s in so many ways, why not capitalize one exploration of capitalism by featuring them in a well-produced, highly-publicized historical mini-series?
The History Channel has gotten a bad ‘rap’ as of late for investing in some curious products – say Ancient Aliens, which I happen to love but that’s another story – by so much of the mainstream media establishment, and that’s quite probably what fueled their interests in airing something that might appeal to the critical backbone of a nation. THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA is an impressive exploration of American history post-Civil War – a time when pioneers awoke the industrial might of a nation in order to bring the States back together in such a way no one at the time imagined possible. Granted – as is the problem with almost any production these days – there’s a natural tendency to play fast and loose with some facts in order to meet the demands of today’s short-attention-span crowd, and MEN delves into some of the more sensationalist aspects of these lives a bit too often. It’s a fault easy to forgive because the rest of the package works to maintain viewer interest and maybe – just maybe – inspire its audience to actually pick up some books and actually read up on the histories of these men and these times in order to get to know them better and more fully than what’s presented in an eight episode miniseries.
How well does it work? I thought it very effective, though I’ll admit that Vanderbilt and Ford are kinda/sorta given the short stick here, not getting nearly as much coverage out of the eight-episodes that Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan get. Also, there’s more than a healthy use (and re-use) of stock or secondary footage that grows a bit distracting as the mini pushes on. Also – as this was clearly constructed for episodic television treatment – there’s more than needed recapping done; in fact, one might question why the editors chose to provide a recap after every fifteen minute segment aired. Have our attention spans grown really that short? The History Channel must think so. Thankfully, I kept my remote handy and began eliminating (fast-forwarding) these segments as I watched this on DVD.
THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA is produced by Stephen David Entertainment. DVD distribution is being handled through Lionsgate for The History Channel. As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds exceptional; no expense appears to have spared in bringing this mini to life. In fact, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the production was nominated for a VES Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program. As is often the case, this one is a bit short of special features – there are only a handful of excised and/or re-edited sequences that appear sprinkled throughout the three discs. I didn’t feel nothing was essentially added to the production by having them here, but it is what it is.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. As I said in my opening, I don’t know how well THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA would score in total accuracy of the facts, but, so far as the narrative, it works brilliantly, presenting one industrial titan and then showing how he overlapped with the next, and so on and so forth. The lion’s share of the story revolves around Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan; Vanderbilt is given what feels like ‘summary treatment,’ and Ford feels almost like an afterthought, being relegated to a small portion of the final episode. Still, it’s a compelling portrait of the times that shaped these men as well as how these men shaped those times; the only way to perhaps fully flesh these gentlemen out to greater depth would be to now give each of them a stand-alone eight-part mini … which, for the record, I’d definitely watch, in case you’re listening, History Channel.
In the interest of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Lionsgate provided me with a DVD screener copy of THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.