Film Review: Men at Lunch

Few mysteries are answered to a certainty in this sometimes charming, sometimes eye-rolling doc.

A charming 45-minute PBS doc swallowed up by a feature-length production that's as sure of its subject's magnificence as Mr. Rockefeller was about his eponymous Center, Seán Ó Cualáin's Men at Lunch goes so far at one point as to claim that the famous photograph it chronicles—of 11 steelworkers taking a lunch break on a girder—represents "the city's greatest legend." Small-screen audiences will find much to enjoy in the film, but it'll be a tough sell theatrically.

Viewers puzzled that the film exists at all will note that this work of Americana nostalgia was produced with support from the Irish Film Board and relies on more than its share of Irish-speaking interviewees. Only in the last half-hour do we understand why: Two elderly cousins in Shanaglish, Ireland have convinced many that their fathers are two of the long-anonymous men in the photo.

They make a convincing case, but the film begins to feel like propaganda for Shanaglish when it wistfully notes, near the end, "all but two of the men remain anonymous"—a strange assertion, considering that just half an hour earlier we see a Rockefeller Center archivist identifying three of the others based on their presence in another photo.

Whatever the number of mystery men, Lunch is at least sure of the photo's cultural impact: The tourists who flock to Top of the Rock are doing so to celebrate those men, we're told; the image captures this era of New York "like no other."

Cartoonish hyperbole aside, the investigation does have its high points: We get to hang out with that archivist, seeing other truly delightful shots of casually death-defying construction workers—and images of the daring photographers who shot them, who perched in their wing-tips in poses more precarious than their subjects'. And we venture into the Corbis image archives, protected deep inside a mountain, to look at what may be the photo's original glass negative. Strike that: When a Corbis employee takes off his loupe and says "looks like it to me," our narrator declares "we can be absolutely sure" it's the original.

The good stuff is accompanied by lots of fine but thoroughly unnecessary history lessons which eventually conclude that New York is a city of immigrants. The movie's biggest wrong turn is to carry its history all the way to 9/11, lingering for long minutes on that day's horrific images. These were presumably included so Lunch could focus on a crew of contemporary ironworkers, currently building the Twin Towers' replacement. But One World Trade Center is hardly the only building under construction in Manhattan, and certainly isn't the closest to being an heir to the daring aesthetics that made the city's Art Deco masterworks iconic.
The Hollywood Reporter