By the standards of any network, Hatfields & McCoys was a resounding success for the History Channel. It attracted a cast that most cable dramas would be glad to have under contract, brought in a ridiculous amount of viewers to be the number-one program on all three nights it aired, and earned a more than respectable 16 Emmy nominations with two wins for stars Tom Berenger and Kevin Costner. For a channel whose biggest hit in recent years had been about people fencing their stuff for a quick buck in Las Vegas, Hatfields & McCoys offered History a new sense of legitimacy, a chance to join the other networks on the serialized-drama playing field. (Certainly more than their first effort The Kennedys, which was critically panned in development and eventually died an ignoble death on Reelz.)
So it’s not hard to fault History’s promo department for depicting the network’s newest miniseries, The Men Who Built America, as something of a successor to Hatfields & McCoys. Ads set to the ominous tones of The Silent Comedy’s “Blood on the Rails” gave the impression that the show was meant to be a depiction of the notorious robber barons and industrial giants—Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt—and the ruthless tactics they followed to become titans of industry in the decades following the Civil War. True, the ads didn’t boast big-name stars (or even recognizable names) but there was a definite sense that the network was putting together a drama that had the advantage of drawing off a rich pool of American history.
This is not what The Men Who Built America is. Rather than being scripted historical drama in the vein of Hatfields & McCoys, Hell On Wheels, or Boardwalk Empire, it’s more in the vein of traditional History programming, a documentary designed to show the connections between these men and how they monopolized the businesses that a rapidly industrializing America needed to grow. The first episode focuses on Vanderbilt, a shipping magnate who went on to become the absolute king of railroads by ruining and then buying up his competitors; and Rockefeller, a potential partner of Vanderbilt’s who cornered the market on oil refineries and supplanted the railroads by way of pipelines.
Of course, it’s not fair to blame the show for the actions of the promo department. The problem here is that the team behind The Men Who Built America seems to have the same delusion about what it is, and it comes across more as a documentary masquerading as a miniseries than it does either of the two. In addition to the usual documentary devices of talking heads, stock footage, and historical photographs, History chose to produce key moments in its subject’s lives as a period drama—Vanderbilt’s effort to educate his second son about business, Rockefeller’s near miss by being late for a train that went off a bridge—and weave those events into the discussion. We see the streets of New York, the oil fields of Ohio, and even at one point a blockaded bridge that cements Vanderbilt as the undisputed king of Albany, N.Y.’s commerce.
These scenes couldn’t have been cheap to produce, and yet they come across as nothing but filler. Rather than allowing for anything approximating drama or character development, the narrator reads off their accomplishments while the actors are asked to do nothing more than drink whiskey and look out the window, or stride impressively through a train yard or a refinery. It borders on laughable on more than one occasion, as the same shots keep popping up in relation to events months or years apart from each other: You can practically set your watch to when a horse-drawn carriage is shown in between describing just how insightful and ambitious Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and their competitors were. There are times when it seems like the series wants to do more with the scenes, but none of the actors seem interested enough in doing anything more than utter vaguely threatening lines, and what narrative exists is abandoned before it gains any traction. (This is particularly noticeable when a story involving two entrepreneurs swindling millions out of Vanderbilt implies vicious revenge from the latter—practically invoking The Wire in stating the two “came at the king”—and then is never mentioned again once Rockefeller enters the picture minutes later.)
The disjointed nature of these elements also hurts the documentary side of things, though that’s not great on its own. Vanderbilt biographer T.J. Stiles and historian H.W. Brands offer some context to how the industrialists became the men they were, but their segments are outnumbered by people who’d like to think of themselves as the men who built modern America praising them for their initiative at the expense of others. It’s a perplexing array of platitudes about entrepreneurship: Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone talks about how men like these “don’t think in terms of money... your objection is to win,” former GE chairman Jack Welch says, “Innovation is a constant thing,” and Russell Simmons of Def Jam praises Standard Oil by saying, “A creative entrepreneur provides the product people need.” Substantive discussion (or even any discussion) of the ethics of business practices like monopolies and watered-down stock are absent, all brushed aside with the acknowledgment that was how things worked back then.
Certainly, there is a story to be told about the building of America, and possibly even more than one serialized drama. The Men Who Built America isn’t that, its hybridization of documentary filmmaking and reenactment coming up short on both counts. I’m sure History had the best of intentions in putting this together, but when you have Donald Trump talking about finding business opportunity in bad times, men in period dress playing cards, and stock footage of trains and sunsets—all within the span of five minutes—it’s a fairly safe bet something went wrong in the development process.