Much like the men it celebrates, History’s mini-series The Men Who Built America bursts at the seams with so much storytelling potential that a mere six hours just can’t contain. The rising and falling of each of America’s most notorious entrepreneurs and businessmen could last an entire season of television unto themselves if told as a straightforward narrative, but that’s not exactly what The Men Who Built America does. Instead of a basic story or simply a documentary, it blends the two together with re-enactments of their greatest exploits and talking heads of their modern day counterparts reflecting on the killer instincts that made them rich. It’s an interesting blend, especially as a teaching device, but for those just interested in the stories of these great men, the constant interruptions by the likes of Mark Cuban and Donald Trump get a bit annoying.
The series starts appropriately enough with the legacy of Cornelius Vanderbilt whose enterprising spirit helped drive the construction of railways across the country and opened up industry in a way never before possible. His story leads directly into that of John D. Rockefeller, aspiring oil magnate, and how the established mogul plucks the relative newcomer out of obscurity and makes him a target for a deal from a competing railway company headed by Thomas Scott and a certain Andrew Carnegie. The series continues to daisy chain these titans of industry together—covering the likes of J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and more—proving just how phenomenal that era of industrial revolution was.
While the insight into the mind of these men from the perspective of historians and modern masters of business are interesting at times, they often take us out of the wholly compelling element of the series: the story. This could easily have been split into two different productions, the modern retrospective and the narrative, but instead they blended it together in a way where one detracts from the other. It’s too bad, because this could have been fantastic even with the sometimes corny, clichéd writing and the maddening tendency of the narration to repeat the story so far after every commercial break. The stories of these men and the things they do in the name of profit are just that fascinating.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Additional “scenes” from each of the inventors’ narratives are the only extras.
"The Men Who Built America" is on sale January 22, 2013 and is not rated. Documentary, Drama. Directed by Patrick Reams. Written by Randy Counsman, Keith Palmer, David C. White. Starring Eric Rolland, Tim Getman, Adam Jonas Segaller, Justin Morck, Don Meehan.