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Featured TV on DVD Review: The Men Who Built America

January 20th, 2013

The Men Who Built America - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The Men Who Built America is an eight-hour mini-series that aired on the History Channel last fall. The History Channel is currently dominated by shows about aliens and people doing dangerous jobs, so it is nice to see a show that is actually about history. However, recent historical offerings have disappointed. Will this show avoid all of the pitfalls?

The Show

The show begins at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and looks at the boom American went through from the post-Civil War era to the the beginning of the 20th century and the start of World War I. The first episode focuses on Cornelius Vanderbilt, but moves onto John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford. In-between historical reenactments, we hear from a number of big business types from today, like Mark Cuban, Sumner Redstone, Jim Cramer ... Donald Trump? Are you kidding me? Why is he talking about successful people? His corporation went bankrupt four times. One of the times, the creditors allowed massive amounts of debt to be forgiven, if Donald Trump was no longer in charge. He's good at marketing himself, but that's about it. Unfortunately, almost nothing these businessmen say is all that interesting. There are some historians here as well, and at least they add something to the show. Even so, it tends to be a little superficial and despite a total running time of six hours, I don't think I learned very much.

The Men Who Built America also has a tendency to overstate what these people did. In one of the rare insights from one of the businessmen featured, Steve Wynn, a resort and casino developer -- Really? Is a casino magnate really the kind of business leader that should be talking here? Anyway, he says these men were great salesmen, but as Steve Wozniak previously points out, you need the scientists to develop the technology these people sell. I would rather watch a series dealing with the scientists that helped build America. The show also tends to overlook the negative impact these men have. Early on, Vanderbilt gets into a business fight over his rail line into New York City and to crush his competition, he closes the Albany bridge. This works and he is able to buy out rival railways. However, the show completely ignores the collateral damage done. There were undoubtedly businesses that went under because they couldn't get raw materials from New York City or ship their product to New York City, because these multi-millionaries decided to get into a pissing match. Sometimes what is good for a business is bad for the country as a whole.

The show does suffer from a lot of the same problems other History Channel shows. It is very repetitive. At the end of each commercial break, we hear a recap of what we've been told before, so by the end of each episode, we've been told the same thing over and over again. It's a history lesson for those with faulty memories. It also has a tendency to be overly dramatic, especially in the score. There are some dramatic moments talked about in the series, but they are diluted by all the times the score builds at what is really a routine business deal.

The Extras

On disc one, there is a four-minute featurette on Andrew Carnegie and a three-minute featurette called Rich to Richer on J.P.Morgan. Disc two has a three-minute featurette on The American Dream and a three-minute featurette on Monopoly. There are four featurettes on disc three, starting with Competitive Nature, which runs three minutes. Every Man is just over two minutes and is about Henry Ford. The Rise of Cornelius Vanderbilt runs to four minutes. Finally, there's Traits of a Titan, which also runs for four minutes. That's not a bad amount of extras.

I don't have the Blu-ray to compare. It does cost $8 more, which is not a great deal, but it is also not a deal-breaker.

The Verdict

The Men Who Built America is better than most of what the History Channel puts out, but it still has flaws, including some that seem to affect all History Channel shows (repetitive, overly dramatic, etc.). It is also tends to move into hagiography territory too often. The DVD and the Blu-ray have enough extras that they are worth picking up, if you like the show.

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