The inaugural episode of the History Channel’s miniseries The Men Who Built America is titled “A New War Begins”. The “old war” that the title alludes to is of course The Civil War, which touched off a period of innovation and growth that put the relatively young and struggling nation on the road to becoming a world power. For over three decades, the rise of new industries and technologies such as railroads, oil, steel, electricity and motor vehicles revolutionized the way not just America, but the entire world, worked. It also made a lot of men very, very wealthy.
Through eight absorbing episodes, The Men Who Built America attempts to encapsulate the Gilded Age through the stories of five of its most influential figures: Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. But far from being a typical documentary, The Men Who Built America attempts to bridge the gap between narrative and biography, history lesson and entertainment. It’s not quite a true mini-series, due to the standard disembodied narrator describing the action as it happens on screen and providing helpful background details. But most of the action is driven by a team of actors who, through scenes and dialogue, drive the majority of the narrative forward.
Few historical images of the events being described are used, and we never see actual photos of the five men who are prominently featured, which helps the audience fully imagine the actors in their roles. This is only distracting when it comes to JP Morgan (Eric Rolland) who, with his chevron mustache, looks eerily like a pre-1900s Tony Stark.
The method has its advantages and disadvantages. At its worse, the production slips into heavy-handedness, with over-dramatic writing and self-serious performances, lending this particularly fascinating period of American history all the gravitas of a daytime soap opera. I suppose it’s possible that these men, when they weren’t revolutionizing cross-country transportation or the way entire cities were powered, spent their free time gazing off into the distance with a cigar in one hand, or staring at maps and pounding their fists on tables. The effect is almost laughable, and you half expect the characters to begin greedily wringing their hands together and mutter, “More! I must have more!”
It’s too bad, because while The Men Who Built America is certainly too serious for its own good, at its best, it wasn’t a mistake that I previously referred to this period of history as fascinating. These titans of industry may have been ruthless and cutthroat men in an age before monopolies and takeovers were illegal, crushing any and all opposition to ensure they stayed on top, but they were also men of extraordinary vision who took enormous risks and put everything on the line to see their dreams succeed.
To help drive home this latter point, the series is also punctuated with talking head commentary by modern-day business giants, like Donald Trump, Ron Perelman and Alan Greenspan, as well as biographers and historians of the men in question. The intention, which one assumes is to serve as reminder that when it comes to The Men Who Built America, the verb could just as well be present tense, falls flat on its face. It’s one thing when you praise the business acumen of men who are long dead from the vantage point of history, and another when you praise them in yourself. Hearing Donald Trump complain that “once your name becomes synonymous with your brand, you become a target,” or Jerry Weintraub, the Hollywood producer, brag that “I am not a good enemy, and if you hurt me, I will hurt you back, and in the end, I’ll win, because I’m a winner” is simply nauseating.
Particularly off-putting is an anecdote Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, tells about a rivalry he once had with Trump over who could write the biggest check without feeling the loss. In an era when thousands of Americans are hard-pressed for work, that comment in particular stings. Still, it’s hard to deny that Rockefeller or Carnegie didn’t boast about similar things in their own lifetime, and perhaps making that comparison is the whole point.
One thing that’s hard to miss is how woefully unrepresented women are in this series, both as characters and experts. With a title like The Men Who Built America, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the absence is pervasive enough that when a woman does appear onscreen, as a handful of female biographers and businesswomen do, it’s almost jarring. If any women had influence over the lives of these powerful men, or indeed over this 30 year span of American history, it’s apparently unimportant.
As a final note, watch this series with a remote nearby. For some reason, after each commercial break, the filmmakers felt the need to basically re-state everything you’ve learned from the beginning of the series until the break.