The History Channel has shifted to more entertaining ways in recent years to present history as younger generations now prefer their education in slicker packages than straight documentaries. The Men Who Built America is an eight-episode mini-series chronicling the rise of business titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller before World War I, as they helped shape a country devastated by the Civil War into the world’s greatest superpower.
The fresh hook is insight and commentary provided by current business icons like Donald Trump and Mark Cuban. The commentary is delivered by a number of talking heads in the form of brief monologues, interspersed between dramatic reenactments of the post-Civil War period which highlights the key business developments of the era. Omnipresent narration by Campbell Scott keeps the whole thing together.
The series mainly covers the monopolists who most shaped the business of America before the first World War, transforming the country in the process to an industrial powerhouse. Among them are Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford. The personal connections between the men are heavily featured in both the narration and dramatic re-tellings of the important historical moments they had participated. It focuses on the men’s personal issues and tries to build a sense of drama into the proceedings, always reminding viewers that most of them risked their fortunes at one time to get where they eventually ended up. There is a reliance on personal conflict between the various tycoons to drive the narrative.
Campbell Scott provides a heavy dose of narration, bridging key events in the titans’ private lives that drove important business developments like the growth of the steel industry. Noted business celebrities one might come across on CNBC, like Donnie Deutsch, are featured in pithy excerpts highlighting relevant business commentary on the historical events. It’s definitely a little different than other documentaries, though the actual historians in the series tend to provide more cogent commentary than the generalities of celebrities like Mark Cuban.
The main weakness of the series lies in its obvious roots as an episodic cable program. There is a lot of repetition to the content, as the series feels compelled to recap key events after each commercial break point. That technique probably played fine to audiences when first broadcast, but it gets tedious on home viewing.
History buffs might like the glossy presentation of the content, but in actuality most of the commentary is fairly lightweight. It is not a series for the dedicated historian, but clearly intended for a general audience that hasn’t studied the subject since high school. There is still a huge audience for this type of infotainment and many will find it highly entertaining in spite of the flaws.
Lionsgate has been very generous to this mini-series, spreading eight episodes which run close to 360 minutes in total, over three separate BD-50s. Hence the AVC video encode for a typical episode averages nearly 35 Mbps, higher than most new releases these days. The 1080P video is presented in its native aspect ratio of 1:78:1, exactly as it was broadcast on the History Channel.
The mini-series has been primarily shot using digital video cameras, producing a very clean and vivid picture, particularly for the celebrities and business icons that provide commentary. The dramatic historical reenactments, while still very clean and clear, are slightly worse in video quality due to the frequent use of CGI scenery in the sets and the desaturated color palette used to differentiate the scenes from the present. It’s only as the program moves closer to the Twentieth Century that some actual historic film footage and vintage photographs are used to aid the narration, which is naturally very rough and grainy in appearance.
Probably the most annoying problem with the video quality is the frequent use of a few stock pieces of footage mocked up for this show, such as a steam train barreling around a curve. The CGI doesn’t hold up that well on repeated usage and viewers will notice its softer detail and lower resolution.
Technically, the program avoids any major transfer issues like edge enhancement or possible digital manipulation, beyond the creation of a few CGI sets featured in the dramatic portions. There are no problems with the black levels at all and contrast only briefly dips into questionable territory in a few of the interior scenes. It simply looks like a lot of other recent documentaries broadcast on the History Channel. Expect a presentation that looks almost identical to the broadcast version in HD, with slightly superior resolution and a lack of compression annoyances.
Like most of History Channel’s self-produced programs, The Men Who Built America is presented in a bold and booming 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. It’s a well-recorded mix that features clear dialogue and strong narration by Campbell Scott. The instrumental score heavily emphasizes action and dramatic flourishes, practically mirroring the music of a Hans Zimmer or other recent Hollywood composers. If anything, its constant presence is a little overbearing for a program that is purportedly a serious look at historical events.
The mix is largely confined to the front soundstage, though a few events leak into the surround channels when a scene calls for it. There is a surprising amount of bass for a cable production, frequently engaging the listener. While not on par with the best theatrical features, most will be mightily impressed by the lossless audio.
Lionsgate has included an interesting extra called the DTS-HD MA Sound Check. Running a little over three minutes, it is an audio test to check whether your audio system is properly working. It sweeps all channels and also tests if your speakers are in the correct phase. Two subtitle options are offered: Spanish and English SDH. The subtitles appear in a white font.
The only extra features to note are the following brief snippets, which appear to have been segments cut from the broadcast version for time. They mostly comprise of extended comments from the talking heads and celebrities about various topics. Lionsgate could have saved everyone a lot of time if they had simply included these very short featurettes in one playable feature, instead of spreading them out over the three discs. One gets the feeling these were merely included to list the presence of bonus features on the back cover.
Andrew Carnegie (04:08 in 1080P)
Rich To Richer (03:10 in 1080P)
The American Dream (02:57 in 1080P)
Monopoly (02:52 in 1080P)
Competitive Nature (02:44 in 1080P)
The Everyman (02:26 in 1080P)
The Rise Of Cornelius Vanderbilt (03:49 in 1080P)
Traits Of A Titan (03:39 in 1080P)
Lionsgate has also provided a handful of trailers for other programs, all in HD quality: Titanic: Blood & Steel, The Conspirator, Boss, Mad Men: Season 5.
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