Despite its title, 'The Men Who Built America,' the latest television documentary from the History cable network, is not about the country's founding fathers, as it would most likely be understood. Instead, this eight-part program, which originally aired in the weeks between October and November, looks at the small group of industrialists from the late 19th Century who shaped — or as the title suggests "built" — America into the economic powerhouse it is today. It's a fascinating and sprawling documentary about the men that while long dead influenced and impacted the country's growth into the 20th Century. Even if they're mostly forgotten by many modern consumers and everyday citizens, their innovations and business practices continue to be felt today.
And this isn't your typical documentary. Then again, these weren't your typical business men either, demanding a special kind of recognition and reverence unique only to them. This bio-drama directed by Patrick Reams and Ruán Magan doesn't shed light on new information or reveal every dirty secret in the personal lives of these individuals. Effectively muddling the line between actual history and creative fictional license, the miniseries portrays Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan with god-like approbation. It's not because they deserve to be seen as such, but because they believed themselves to have earned that sort of respect, in spite of the questionable tactics used in order for them to achieve their massive success.
'The Men Who Built America' is not quite as exhaustive and detailed as I would have preferred, especially given the subject matter and the discussion being on each man's lasting contribution to history. But what we get is thoroughly entertaining and engaging nonetheless, told through the lens of a grand, sweeping epic that exalts the last quarter of the 19th Century in business and enterprise to mythological proportions. Most compelling of the eight-hour series is its attempt to also understand these heroes of American capitalism on a human, psychological level, to explore the force and impetus which drove each of them. I found these minor glimpses into their personal lives, some more tragic or cosmically ironic than others, simply captivating because there is a great deal of truth behind the idea that such tragedies can become powerful motivators.
After the death of his son during the Civil War, Vanderbilt became more ruthless and callous when expanding his shipping and railroad business, quickly making him the most powerful man in the country. When accidentally missing the train that would have surely led to his death, a young, up-and-coming oil man named Rockefeller struck an exclusive deal with Vanderbilt to ship his kerosene across the nation. Revolutionizing the petroleum industry and with the founding of Standard Oil, he soon became a force to reckon with, inadvertently causing the downfall of Vanderbilt's railroad competitor after constructing oil pipelines. Rising from that company's collapse was Andrew Carnegie who took a risky chance in the manufacturing of steel, hoping to overthrow Rockefeller as the country's richest man. Unexpectedly, Morgan did what Carnegie could not by taking Edison's ideas in electricity and supplying the entire nation with a more efficient lighting alternative.
Eventually, each man's desire for controlling every aspect of industry and commerce has them clashing with one another. Then they build momentary alliances when battling the U.S. government, and they each employed certain practices which are today deemed unlawful and dishonest. This is by far the most intriguing feature of the whole docudrama and definitely, the most troubling. Looking at how much we have benefited in contemporary society from these men, we can admire and respect their contributions in influencing and shaping the 20th Century. But at the same time, we look down and despise the things they had to do in order to get there. The double-edge sword comes when we think about how their actions also led to federal antitrust statutes and labor laws. With the bad, also comes the good, and 'The Men Who Built America' is a fantastic miniseries that engenders further discussion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Home Entertainment and the History channel bring 'The Men Who Built America' to Blu-ray in a three-disc package with a glossy, cardboard slipcover. Each disc is a Region Free, BD50 with the first two containing three episodes each while the last carries the final two. Special features are spread throughout all three discs. At startup, viewers are greeted with skippable trailers for other TV programs on Blu-ray. Afterwards, the screen switches to a main menu with music and options along the bottom while a small window shows full-motion clips.
Shot with HD digital cameras, the miniseries arrives on Blu-ray with a spectacular and highly-detailed AVC-encoded (1.78:1) transfer. The picture reveals every crevice, stain and flaw in the structures surrounding the men while their homes are immaculate, resolute and well-defined. Facial complexions appear natural with visible pores and wrinkles, and every hair is their beards and atop their heads is distinct. The photography is a bit on the creative side with some scenes shot in bokeh or a shallow focus while others are in a deep focus. Depth of field is often impressive and looks quite stunning in this high-def presentation.
The color palette also has an attractive amber, golden quality to it with emphasis on the softer secondary hues, giving the video an amusing antiquated feel. Still, primaries are bold and cleanly-rendered. Contrast is spot-on, providing each episode with plenty of pop and vibrancy without sacrificing detailing. Black levels are rich and true with excellent visibility within the darkest portions and shadows. The overall image has a nice three-dimensional sense throughout, making this a fantastic home video debut.
The miniseries makes its way to Blu-ray with a terrific DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that nicely complements the bio-drama and its picture quality. Understandably, there is little activity in the rears, but the music subtly bleeds into the back, wonderfully extending and generating an engaging soundfield. A few discrete effects are also occasionally employed for ambience, but it's nothing very impressive or immersive. The front-heavy lossless mix exhibits a well-balanced mid-range with excellent clarity and room-penetrating acoustics. Low bass is deep and appropriate for a television with several hearty moments that add a bit of depth to a couple action sequences. With distinct, well-prioritized vocals and a flawless channel separation to create a spacious soundstage, the high-rez track is a splendid addition to an outstanding documentary.
A sprawling and sweeping miniseries, 'The Men Who Built America' is a fascinating and terrifically entertaining look at the massive success of entrepreneurs and industrialists in the late 19th Century. Although not as detailed as other documentaries, the eight-part bio-drama is captivating nonetheless as it examines how these four men influenced and shaped capitalism into the 20th Century. The three-disc Blu-ray set comes with an excellent audio and video presentation. While supplements could be stronger, the overall package is still recommended for history buffs.