Thursday, May 2, 2013

"The Men Who Built America" - History Channel (2012)

After the Civil War ended, the United States continued to grow industrially, and with the culmination of the construction of the Union-Pacific Railroad, the nation was headed full tilt into the Gilded Age and the era of the Robber Barons. This 8 hour mini-series chronicles that growth of power, and the largely self-made men who harnessed it, furthering the growth of the nation while at the same time plundering it mercilessly.

This docudrama from 2012 focuses on the 5 main entrepreneurs who became known as the “Robber Barons.” These men; Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford; each wrought changes to the way America worked and prospered, leaving in their wake not only the technological advances which came to define the era, but also a history of abuse which would give rise to the Unions and usher in a new age of rights and expectations for the workingmen and women who run America’s machines and produce her goods.

Directed by Patrick Reams and Ruán Magan, the series is narrated by Campbell Scott, and cleverly divided into 4 overlapping episodes, creating a seamless story of the times; and events; which propelled America into a century of greatness, which we are even now attempting to hold onto.

In Part 1; "A New War Begins"; Cornelius Vanderbilt begins his career as a steamboat captain, and amasses a fortune, which he then invests in the railroad boom. He quickly builds an empire, pitting him against fellow railroaders Jim Fisk and Jay Gould. At the same time, John D. Rockefeller founds Standard Oil , expanding his wealth by means of oil pipelines, which will eventually become just as much of an octopus as the famous political cartoon of Jay Gould straddling the railroads.

In Part 2, "Bloody Battles", Andrew Carnegie founds an empire based upon steel, only to suffer from the ruthless antics of his partner, Henry Frick, the man largely responsible for the Johnstown Flood and later the labor unrest in 1892 at the Homestead Steel Works.

Entering Part 3, "Changing the Game", we find J.P. Morgan bankrolling Thomas Edison to success with the incandescent lamp, even as they compete with the efforts of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. At the same time, William Jennings Bryan; who would later run for President 3 times and lose; begins a campaign to reign in the monopolies so carefully put together by these titans of industry, as they pile abuse upon abuse in their quest to amass even more wealth.

By the time Part 4 starts; “When One Ends, Another Begins"; Rockefeller and Morgan, along with Andrew Carnegie, team up to elect William McKinley to the Presidency. With their vast wealth they virtually paid for the whole campaign, extracting a promise from him that, if elected, he would serve the interests of the monopolies by vetoing any anti-trust legislation which crosses his desk. But when the president is assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt ascends to the office of President with a whole different set of goals. He immediately begins to dismantle the monopolies which these 5 men have worked so hard to build.

In spite of this, J.P. Morgan manages to buy Carnegie Steel, making Carnegie the richest man in the world. At the same time, newcomer Henry Ford begins to build cars in an “assembly line” fashion which will revolutionize manufacturing forever.

This is a wonderful look at America when she was in her most innovative phase, with people coming from all over the world, and each one carrying a dream they hoped to make come true.

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