Blu-ray Review: The Men Who Built America

Men Who Built AmericaSTUDIO: History Channel/Lionsgate | DIRECTOR: Patrick Reams | CAST: Eric Rolland, Tim Getman, Adam Jonas Segaller, Justin Morck
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 1/22/2013 | PRICE: Blu-ray $39.99, DVD $29.98
BONUSES: featurettes
SPECS: NR | 360 min. | Television documentary | 1.78:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1/Dolby Digital 5.1 | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

 

Like the best of the History Channel’s recent TV series, the 2012 production The Men Who Built America mixes dramatizations, interviews, narration and better than average (for television) special effects to tell its story. Here, that’s the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford (with appearances by Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and some other well-known innovators), and each man’s profound impact on the development of our country and, for that matter, the entire world.

The Men Who Built America scene

Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt are The Men Who Built America.

This is no bland history lesson; the series – like all great stories – thrives on conflict, between business titans, between men and nature, and between men and the establishment or the conventional wisdom of the day. Episodes 1 and 2, for example, are as much about Rockefeller and Carnegie dueling for the title of world’s richest man as they are about the harnessing of oil and steel for the good of civilization. Similarly, Episode 6 reveals how Morgan used his financial savvy to emerge from the shadow of—and gain the approval of—his father or, barring that, at least surpass the senior Morgan’s business achievements. These are the men who built our nation, yes, but the point is clearly made that they were motivated by grand egos at least as much as the desire to become rich. And through interviews with the likes of Donald Trump, Mark Cuban and other modern day business titans, it’s easy to understand that the same competitive nature drives innovation today.

“Competitive Nature” is also the title of one of the eight short featurettes on the 3-disc set, which simply isolate a few of the industrialists and themes of the show. Don’t invest in this set looking for illuminating extras, unseen interviews or a lot of bonus footage, or you’ll be disappointed.

On the other hand, just about everything you could want has already been thrown into the eight-part series itself. Despite its 360 minute run time, the series never feels bloated, except when it rehashes previously seen footage after each made-for-television commercial break. Whether its focus is cutthroat business dealings, the dawn of the electrical age or the Johnstown Flood (the result of an unstable dam holding back a reservoir fronting Carnegie lieutenant Henry Frick’s ultra-elitist country club), the subject matter is presented clearly and compellingly. The riches amassed by these men is expressed in both historic and modern day terms, so when we’re told that Carnegie’s fortune would be worth $400 billion in today’s dollars, we’re left picking our jaws up off the floor.

It’s always great when history can come alive in a way that both engages and resonates with today’s attention span-challenged viewers. The History Channel has perfected the formula in the last few years.

 

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About Gary

Gary Frisch has been contributing laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray reviews to Video Business magazine, Home Theater Magazine, Home Theater Buyer’s Guide, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater and the DVD Guide for more than 14 years. He still has a collection of more than 40 laserdiscs, along with a working auto-reverse LD player, but thinks Blu-ray is da bomb and anxiously awaits the original Star Wars trilogy so he can buy it for the fifth time.