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'Men Who Built America' review: History dud

Left to right: Adam Segaller as Andrew Carnegie,

Left to right: Adam Segaller as Andrew Carnegie, Eric Rolland as J.P. Morgan, Tim Getman as John D. Rockefeller and David Donahoe as Cornelius Vanderbilt star in "The Men Who Built America." Credit: History

THE SHOW "The Men Who Built America"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT John D. Rockefeller. Cornelius Vanderbilt. Andrew Carnegie. Henry Ford. J.P. Morgan. The names very much remain household ones, but who exactly were they and how did they build their vast fortunes -- while building a country in the process? That's what this miniseries sets out to discover, with dramatic recreations and running commentary by modern-day chief executives. Tonight explores the relationship between Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.

MY SAY You pretty much know that a documentary on Vanderbilt is holding up a "kick me" sign when the first commentator to appear on-screen is "The Today Show's" Donny Deutsch, followed in short order by Donald Trump. Other rich guys turn up, too -- Jack Welch, Mark Cuban, Ron Perlman, Sumner Redstone -- explaining not so much who the Commodore was as much as who they are: Fabulously clever and insightful captains of industry telling viewers just what it takes to build great empires. Much of what they dispense is self-serving, obvious or of the fortune cookie variety: "Your objective should be to win every time. Win, win, win, win, win!!!" (Redstone). Or "the idea is to see what's missing and serve people." (Russell Simmons). It's usually distracting, mostly irrelevant and entirely dispensable. Meanwhile, "The Men Who Built America" is a bit too comfortable with the Great Man theory of history -- that a few great men built the modern world -- while tending to overlook the mass of other men and women who helped build it as well. As a result, the narratives here lack subtlety, historic context or -- strangely enough -- even drama. The recreations are well-produced (original negatives from the Library of Congress were CGI-enhanced, per History, to "bring historical images to life.") But they're often static, too -- a saturnine Rockefeller staring down some other plutocrat as he hammers out yet another deal, or Vanderbilt pouring himself yet another glass of bourbon. The rich apparently aren't like you or me, after all -- they're duller.

BOTTOM LINE How can a documentary on robber barons be so bland? Watch this to find out.


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