Profiling five titans of industry whose lives helped define the American Dream, History’s “The Men Who Built America” arrives well-timed to an election season driven by economic issues. Unfortunately, the serendipity ends there for this histrionic exercise in myth-making. Eight hours is a hefty commitment to ask viewers to spend on reenactments of key moments in the lives of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford. Especially when the docudrama series’ ostentatious style begins to grate within the first 30 minutes.
Focused on the 50-year period between Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the beginning of World War I, “Men” earnestly attempts to zero in on the most dramatic conflicts, triumphs and setbacks in the professional lives of its subjects.
The series establishes its tone early on with a sequence featuring a young Vanderbilt engaged in a bare-knuckled brawl, supposedly conveying his fighter’s mentality. It’s just one in a steady stream of overblown recreations backed by the sort of bombastic music that might better drive a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Combine these cheeseball scenarios with tepid performances by the re-enactors and rudimentary writing, and “Men” can’t help but come off like the work of a square college professor a little too desperate to appear hip.
The staged scenes and limited archival footage are supplemented by fresh interviews with contemporary business-world power players, ranging from T. Boone Pickens to Steve Wozniak. Most of the contributions are of little or no relevance to the specific historical figures being profiled, tending instead toward uttering generic platitudes about keeping your eye on the prize and always outsmarting the competition.
Aside from a few ironic soundbites — “I find I do better in bad markets,” admits Donald Trump; adds Alan Greenspan, “A necessary condition for crisis is nobody expects it” — the talking heads simply feel like filler. Further padding out the running time, viewers are subjected to the customary recap of the previous segment after every ad break.
With reality hits like “Ice Road Truckers” and “Pawn Stars” eating up so much of History’s airtime these days, it’s nice to see the cabler carve out space in the schedule to spotlight some actual history. But unlike the game-changing icons it intends to celebrate, “Men” fails to leave its mark.