Documentaries generally fall into one of two categories; You either have to watch it for school or work, or you want to watch it in order to learn about a subject matter that peeks your interest. Even in terms of the latter, they are generally informative as a rule, and not something glistening with entertainment.
In 2012, Irish filmmaker and documentarian Seán Ó Cualáin set out to investigate one of the most iconic photographs in American history with his piece “Men at Lunch.” Taken on September 20, 1932, the iconic photograph Lunch atop a Skyscraper depicts eleven migrant workers seated on a narrow beam on a break from their current job – construction of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The common laborers, with feet dangling precariously from the 69th floor beam (840 feet from the streets of New York) have had an eighty-plus year career of reprints, edits, and spoofs courtesy of the well known photograph.
Intent on identifying the men in the photograph, Ó Cualáin succeeds in putting together a riveting picture, one that not only tackles the issue of who the workers are, but exposes the near century long debate of who actually took the photo. The mystery is wrapped perfectly with an awe-inspiring look at the overall creation of one of the greatest cities in the world, New York.
With its menacing skyline and over-packed populous, its hard to imagine New York being nothing but a mixture of land and water as it once was. “Men at Lunch” takes you through the start of New York’s beginnings, exploring the backgrounds of the actual heroes that no one ever thinks about; the millions of anonymous immigrants that built the greatest city in America, literally from scratch.
Iron workers during the era of the Great Depression were a brash lot. As interchangeable pieces (like pawns on a chess board) contractors assumed and actually accounted for one death for every ten floors being built with 2% of the workers killed each year. As one historian explains in the film “Iron workers were making as much as $1.50/hr so the pay was good. The thing is, you had to be willing to die.”
Without the benefits of today’s technology, computers, equipment, vehicles, and safety regulations, its nearly impossible to comprehend the way the giant skyscrapers of New York were built from the ground up. Adding in that they were constructed by men that were gods of the skies, and insignificant nothings on the streets, makes you stop and take thought.
What’s more intriguing than the city itself, is the attempt made to identify the eleven men in the picture. The documentary takes the viewer to various archives around the country, where film reels and newspapers are analyzed and dissected, and interviews a host of people with various claims on being the ancestors of the famous workers. Each of these men were characters in their own stories who came together for a job. They were doing the type of work that we all take pleasure in seeing, but wouldn’t actually do ourselves, with no intentions of the fame they would all have eight decades later.
“Men at Lunch” is a great film. If you enjoy history, and a good mystery, its something you will love. You’ll learn more about the creation of New York in 75 minutes than in three years of a high school history class. The film takes a moment in history captured by a single photograph and turns it into an incredible and truly mind blowing story.
by – Matt Christopher