New York City, 1932. The country is in the throes of the Great Depression, the previous decade’s boom of Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants has led to unprecedented urban expansion, and in the midst of an unseasonably warm autumn, steelworkers risk life and limb building skyscrapers high above the streets of Manhattan. In Men at Lunch, director Seán Ó Cualáin tells the story of Lunch atop a Skyscraper, the iconic photograph taken during the construction of the GE Building that depicts eleven workmen taking their lunch break while casually perched along a steel girder, 850 feet above the ground. For decades, this image has captivated imaginations the world over. But who are these men? And where did they come from?
Ever since the photograph was published anonymously in the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932, the men’s identities have been a mystery. Many of those who have been fascinated by the photo throughout the years have shared the conviction that one of the workers is a distant relative; others, meanwhile, have questioned the photo’s authenticity outright. Accessing the vast photography archives at Rockefeller Center and the Iron Mountain storage facility in Pennsylvania, Ó Cualáin follows the clues in an attempt to discover the photo’s long-held secrets. With the meticulous, painstaking precision of a detective, Ó Cualáin tracks down the original glass-plate negative, and then reconstructs the photograph as a digital projection with actors recreating the workers’ poses, allowing the minutiae of the image to be studied from every possible perspective. Interviews with archivists, photographers, and historians eventually uncover compelling evidence that a few of the photo’s subjects may have roots in the small village of Shanaglish, Ireland.
Yet no matter the secrets that Ó Cualáin uncovers in his dogged search, he is by no means seeking to dilute or demystify the magnetic power of the iconic image. Taken at a time when the utopian dreams of the previous decade had run up against desperate economic reality, the photograph speaks to the enduring fortitude of a nation of immigrants resolutely soldiering on, shrugging off their astonishing accomplishments as merely another day’s honest work. As Men at Lunch eloquently demonstrates, the satisfaction of answers is perhaps dwarfed by the evocative power of the questions. Toronto International Film Festival
Director: Sean Ó Cualáin
Cast: Fionnula Flanagan
Writer: Niall Murphy
Producer: Éamonn Ó Cualáin
Cinematography: Réamonn Mac Donate
Editor: Daithi Connaughton
Music: Mike McGoldrick
Print Source: Sónta Films / The Film Sales Co., NYC
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