Judge Gordon Sullivan built a relief map of America out of bottle caps and cardboard.
When I moved to Pittsburgh, I imagined it was going to be like moving to every other city I'd ever lived in. Little did I know that I'd be walking daily past reminders of the greatness of the industrial age. Sure, Manhattanites can boast of walking through one of the most iconic skylines in the world, but those are collective projects that represent the work of generations. On my daily walk, I pass Carnegie-Mellon University, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Obviously, Andrew Carnegie did not singlehandedly construct these institutions (nor the buildings in which they are housed), but his shadow still falls on the city. Elsewhere, a few miles away, Braddock also shows Carnegie's influence; it's a part of the greater metropolitan area that relied on Carnegie's steel industry to keep it going, and when that failed the area has never quite recovered. That dual legacy—of monumental industry that transformed the American landscape for good and for ill—is the subject of The Men Who Built America, a History Channel miniseries.
Facts of the Case
The Men Who Built America is bookended by presidential assassinations. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, America was clearly at a crossroads. Not yet an industrial powerhouse, but unable to be the agricultural producer it was when slavery was legal, the country needed direction. Obviously, many people helped shape the country in the wake of the Civil War, but in the crucial fifty years after the North/South separation, a handful of names ring out above the fray: Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and Vanderbilt. Together (and separately), these men changed the face of business in America, coming to dominate their respective businesses of manufacturing, finance, steel, and railroads. All of that largely changed in the wake of the assassination of William McKinley, a president much more open to giving business a free reign than the anti-monopoly figures who followed in his wake. Using archival photographs, letters, and big(ger)-budget reenactments, The Men Who Built America looks at these crucial years between the Civil War and World War I.
If you've seen a recent History Channel series, then the format of The Men Who Built America (Blu-ray) will be familiar to you. There's the usual mix of reenactments, archival photos, and interviews. What sets this apart is the quality of this presentation. The reenactments have a scope and budget to them that puts most other, similar documentaries to shame. These are not poorly edited, shaky cam glimpses of central-casting actors in "period" garb. There's an attempt that authenticity (and the funds to support it) that raises the level of the show, even for someone who doesn't like reenactments.
The show also rises above its competition in terms of scope. There are numerous documentaries about the individuals featured here. There are also documentaries on railroads, steel, and early automotive manufacturing. No other documentary I've seen tackles all of them at once across multiple decades. The show does an admirable job showing how each of these men was both unique but also very much a product of a culture that seemed to value rugged individualism. Comparing their trajectories side-by-side give a much fuller picture of them as individuals, but also shows how they influenced each other and the wider American landscape.
The History Channel has put together a handsome Blu-ray release for the miniseries. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers are excellent. Fine detail is strong in the reenactments, and contemporary interviews look appropriate as well. Colors skew towards a desaturated, sepia tone, but that's appropriate for an historical account. Noise isn't a significant problem, and even the archival material looks solid. Campbell Scott's narration is at the center of this set's DTS-HD 5.1 track. His voice is clean and clear from the center, while music cues and low-end rumbles fill out the rest of the soundscape.
Extras consist of eight brief featurettes that essentially act as deleted scenes. Each of the series' major "characters" gets another three or four minutes devoted to his life, along with featurettes that focus on monopolies and the personality traits the group shared in common. Taken together, they flesh out some of the personal details that didn't fit into the larger "building America" narrative.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, it's really easy to criticize The Men Who Built America on several fronts. The first is the entire idea of the "great man" theory of history. No doubt these men were singular, and the series does a pretty good job of putting them in their social context, but I'm sure there are many interesting stories not told by focusing on these "great men." There's also the fact that this is a "great man" documentary at all, since another documentary of similar length could be made about the women who changed America in those years (since the hardcore suffrage movement covers roughly the same time period). Since we're talking about how "great" these men are, this series could have done a bit more to balance their portraits by spending a bit more time with the darker side of these men (including Ford's anti-Semitism).
Formally, this set should really have been reedited after broadcast. All the recapping is justifiable when there are commercials breaking up segments. On home video the constant retreading gets kind of monotonous. There's also a bit of repetition in the visuals. Obviously, there are only so many photos of these subjects, and only so much room for reenactments, but without all the repetition due to commercial breaks, I have a feeling there might have been enough photos to go around.
The Men Who Built America is more interesting and informative than the average reenactment-laced History Channel series. Though I wonder about the wisdom of making a documentary about a group of monopolists in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, these eight episodes are more balanced than most industrialist documentaries. Coupling the better-than-average series with a fantastic Blu-ray presentation makes this an easy set to recommend, especially for history buffs or educators.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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