Review: ‘Men at Lunch’ a close-up of a famed photo of ironworkers

An iconic 1932 photo of construction workers eating their lunches atop a steel beam 800 feet above ground, at the building site of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center.
(Corbis / First Run Features)

Eleven men, sun-dried and weary but relaxed as peacocks, roost on a steel beam seemingly miles above Manhattan. Captured in the 1932 photo “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” they evoke masculine bravery and foolhardiness, the Babel-esque ambitions and lax work regulations of a bygone era, and the hazards of attaining the American dream.

Director Seán Ó Cualáin’s PBS-like documentary “Men at Lunch” strays far from the glamour and slickness associated with 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the building those ironworkers helped construct. Through an earnest narration by Fionnula Flanagan and slow zooms into the photograph, the film investigates several questions surrounding the image: its authenticity, its appeal and the identities of its creator and subjects.

If the fact-finding missions prove largely inconclusive, the documentary at least enjoys the benefit of Ó Cualáin’s bold reframing of the photograph as a record of Irish immigration. The picture’s bookends — the elfin smoker and the scowler holding a whiskey bottle — are traced back to an Emerald Isle county.

Yet it’s not the documentary’s human stories that fascinate but history itself. In Depression-era New York, construction casualties amounted to one dead laborer for every 10 floors. So common were occupational fatalities, “we do not die; we are killed,” became the ironworkers’ motto. Regrettably, “Men at Lunch” obsesses over disappearing ghosts instead of the records we already have and the history we should know.



“Men at Lunch”

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 7 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills.