Talking Movies

February 1, 2013

Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir

This documentary examines the famous 1932 photograph Lunch Atop a Skyscraper depicting 11 steel workers perched on a girder above Manhattan while building 30 Rock.


This TG4 originated feature, narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, tries to identify the anonymous 11 men in the photograph with research in the archives of the Rockefeller Centre that compares the diners with figures in other contemporaneous photos taken by the daredevil press photographers of the equally death-defying steelworkers. Director Seán Ó Cualáin follows the trail of clues into the bunker west of NYC that houses Corbis’ originals of their treasure-trove of iconic photographs. On a side-note Pennsylvanians should definitely head to Corbis’ underground lair in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Sadly what appears to be an original glass negative is now shattered, but it seems to confirm there was no trickery involved in the photo. It was as dangerous as it looks, and 2 of those men eating lunch may have been from the remote Galway village of Shanaglish…

Matt O’Shaughnessy and Sonny Glynn to be precise, as vouched for by Boston man Pat Glynn who recognised his father and uncle in the photo one day – not least because of the characteristically intimidating stare given the camera by his father; who may have been drinking poitin on the job… Both men did leave the small village of Shanaglish to work in New York on the lucrative but extremely dangerous skyscraper construction boom of the roaring 1920s. But did they then become immortalised by the skyline they helped to build? Perhaps, perhaps not, it’s hard to be definitive. Dan Barry of the New York Times certainly wishes to believe so, not least because of some amazing coincidences. But then, as the film explains, with eloquent testimony from Irish-American Peter Quinn, many Americans insist their ancestors are in the photo.

There is in fact too much harping about the photo’s deep positive meaning throughout. If you’re wary of American exceptionalism even as Francis Fukuyama, or know the deep suspicion with which non-WASP immigration has historically been regarded in American politics, then you may get fed up of this section; but it’s quickly dispensed with for detective work. Sadly 9/11 and the construction of the Freedom Tower are then unnecessarily tacked on at the end. The building of 30 Rock is fascinating in itself. The architects and chiefs planned a certain number of deaths per number of storeys completed. Chilling? Yes. Reminiscent of how the pyramids were built? Even more so. The names of the men who commission these buildings are remembered, but the people who actually hauled the stones or raised high the steelwork are forgotten. That is, until now.

This is an interesting film that occasionally pushes its luck too far, but has the horse sense to change direction just in time to keep the audience consistently engaged.


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