Friday, July 8, 2016

A review of “The Men Who Built America” (History Channel)

"The Men Who Built America" is something of a rarity in the world of documentaries, because it is one of the few history programs out there that actually focuses on the private sector. Most history programs focus on either heads-of-state or wars, and there's nothing wrong with this - public-sector history is definitely worthy of study; and it is well that our schools spend so much time teaching it. Nonetheless, there is much of importance that happens in the private sector as well; and our focus on "politics and the military" should not preclude us from talking about these things on occasion, if not frequently.

In that spirit, I set out to talk about this remarkable program; which is one of the few programs that talks sympathetically about the contributions of businessmen. When liberals talk about businessmen at all, it's usually in a negative sense, to paint them as greedy "robber barons" who will stop at nothing to make a buck. Fortunately, however, this show seems far enough to the right that they don't slow down the narrative with inappropriate rants about capitalism, and instead focus on the human story of what happened - showing the considerable accomplishments of these men, while not omitting the more sordid details of how they sometimes went about getting their massive fortunes.

What strengths does the History Channel bring to the table here?

The History Channel may have been the only network that could have told this story; since the leftist leanings of some other networks (PBS included) usually prevent them from telling the story of the "captains of industry" in this country; and what little coverage they do dedicate to them is somewhat biased at times. Although PBS did do a fine documentary about Henry Ford, I must admit; which inspired some confidence in them that I lost somewhat after watching their rather unsatisfying documentary about the Rockefellers - a documentary that doesn't measure up to their (usually high) standards. I've not seen the PBS program on Andrew Carnegie, I should make clear, since it's a little out of my price range ($90); but if I'm ever able to see it sometime, I'll insert some commentary on this as well.

Andrew Carnegie

J. P. Morgan

Whom does this series focus on? (The five individuals)

I should probably mention that the series focuses on the careers of five men, who were some of the great business giants in American history - great enough, in fact, that a few of their names are still known today, like Rockefeller and the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Two of the others are also quite well-known, which are the automaker Henry Ford and the financier J. P. Morgan - unlike the first one they cover (Cornelius Vanderbilt) whose name has since faded into obscurity, but who was well-known in his own time as a railroad magnate; who got rich from the building of railroads across the American heartland. (More about him here on Wikipedia, for any that are interested.) All of these men are worthy topics, I should make clear; and with the exception of Ford, they are all covered extensively in this six-hour program from the History Channel - possibly the finest program of its kind out there.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Minor problems with this documentary

There are a few problems with this program, though, which I should mention up front before getting into the things that it does well. One is the anachronistic theme music at the beginning of every episode with the loud electric guitars (that don't fit into the time period.) Another is the extensive recapping after every commercial break to let viewers know what's going on when they come in halfway - something that would be reasonable in moderation, I think, but which seems somewhat excessive when it's repeated time and time again with very little variation. But these are fairly minor flaws, and they usually don't detract from the telling of the story.

Henry Ford

Major problems with this documentary

The more serious problem, in my opinion, comes from the painful brevity with which it covers - or rather, doesn't cover - Henry Ford; one of the few parts of this story that is actually covered better by PBS. The History Channel's coverage of Henry Ford almost seems more like an epilogue to their main story, mentioned to show that the business world was moving away from the monopoly era of Carnegie and Rockefeller, and towards a business model that was much more modern in nature, and which treated its workers with more respect than was common in previous generations. The epilogue is appropriate despite this, I should make clear; but this program doesn't cover Henry Ford in the kind of depth that its advertisements would seem to imply, and people interested in Mr. Ford would be better off going to PBS. (Although this program does cover John D. Rockefeller considerably better than PBS does, since that program focuses as much on his descendants as it does on the famous oil tycoon, and doesn't let you know how Mr. Rockefeller got rich. "The Men Who Built America," by contrast, tells this story capably.)

John D. Rockefeller

Strengths of this documentary: The interviews with CEOs

This series is a fine program despite these flaws; and it helps to make you aware of their lasting influence on American history. One of the things that is unique about this program is that they don't just interview historians, but also CEOs of corporations who have themselves been successful at business, and who are thus informed commentators on how the "game of business" is played. These entrepreneurial interviews add a dimension that the interviews with historians wouldn't offer by themselves - although they do interview historians as well; who offer some important commentary of their own, and help to put these events into the context of their times. Neither one is necessarily better than the other, I should make clear, and the documentary benefits greatly from the contributions of both (including the historians). Nonetheless, the CEO interviews add a dynamic that the historians alone couldn't provide; and the documentary benefits greatly from including them as well - something that most other documentaries out there about history wouldn't venture to do, even when it is appropriate as it is here.

Henry Frick, a lieutenant of Andrew Carnegie, and one of the more controversial players in this story

Strengths of this documentary: Sympathetic depiction of cutthroat competitors

Part of the success of this program comes from its dramatic depiction of the cutthroat competition between the rivals, which is something that is not often depicted sympathetically in most other popular media out there (pity about that). The media does not often take the time to give the same dramatic storytelling to competition in business as they do to competition in politics, wars, or sports - subjects which the popular media are much more interested in than business, and which usually benefit from a much better storytelling effort than that given to competition between businessmen. The competition is brutal, and the stakes are high; but the negative attitudes about "profit" and "greed" prevent some of them from telling the story sympathetically in the same way as they do for these other topics - except, that is, for rare exceptions like this fascinating program; which is one of the few to take the time to do it right. Kudos to the History Channel for being willing to do this story, and for recognizing that not all great history is found in the public sector.

Thomas Edison, who created an industry for electricity that this documentary talks about

Nikola Tesla, another pioneer in the electricity industry that is covered in this documentary

Conclusion: The history of business ought to be covered more often

The re-enactments are great, and the special effects are worthy of Hollywood; but it's the human story of what happened that makes this program worth watching. This program may have special interest for people who are interested in business (and I'm a business major myself); but it can nonetheless be enjoyed by virtually anyone with an interest in history (and I fall into this category as well). It has been said that everything has a history, from art to music to sports. If so, business is no exception; and it's a pity that the history of business isn't covered more often.

DVD on Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Henry Ford biography movie

Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio

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