men-at-lunch1[xrr rating=2.0/5]Eleven men sit precariously on an I-beam, Central Park visible thousands of feet below them as they casually eat their lunch. The construction workers were part of the crew that built Rockefeller Center’s RCA building, known as 30 Rock. This 1932 group portrait, known as “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” is one of the iconic images of New York, but neither the names of the subjects nor the name of the photographer can be positively identified, despite the movie’s attempts. So when a Irish actress with a breathlessly singsong voice narrates director Seán Ó Cualáin’s Men at Lunch, the hagiography of a photograph, what kinds of images do you think will follow when she talks about the iconic images of New York?

Celebrity images, that’s what kind: James Dean walking in the rain near Times Square. Marilyn Monroe in a subway station. Later in the film, a curator talks about some truly definitive New York images: Edward Steichen’s twilit photo of the Flatiron building, “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” etc., none of which are marred by celebrities. That Men at Lunch so easily resorts to celebrity fawning is just one way the movie takes good material and makes a sentimental mess of it.

“New York. A city that defies the night, and outshines the day.” This kind of overwritten narration defines the film’s tone for the worse, and detracts from what could have been a lively and informative hour. This short documentary was cut down to 67 minutes for a US release from an original 80 minute running time. A lot of what remains is sub-PBS fluff, but Ó Cualáin provides compelling background to go with the purple myth making.

The best parts of the film are less conducive to the breathless treatment, though the director cannot help but create an air of mystery around an underground archive carved into a mountain. The Corbis Agency owns rights to “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” and Corbis (among other archives) store their priceless photographic vaults at the Iron Mountain facility in Pennsylvania. Here we see an archivist fetch what is most likely the original glass camera negative that recorded the Men at Lunch image. Photography geeks like me will drool over sequences like this, and pore over photographs that should provide clues to a question that has not been definitively answered: who made the photo?

Which leads to Men at Lunch, detective story. But this is not a thorough investigation.

Rockefeller Center’s archives hold photos of two men who were taking photos of the construction site the day the iconic image was made. Eagle-eyed shutterbugs can identify two very different cameras in these shots, a relatively small folding camera and a larger press camera. But the filmmakers make no note of these photographic clues.

Ó Cualáin is more thorough when he traces the names of two men who may have been in the photo to a village in Ireland. This explains the Irish narrator and director, and the Irish talking heads who speak so admirably of the melting pot of New York. The director interviews august Irish villagers whose descendents are known to have worked on Rockefeller Center and may or may not have been two of the men perched precariously upon that fated I-Beam, and thus a magical story of New York unfolds, or so the filmmakers would have you believe. But Men at Lunch relies too much on blarney and not enough on the rich history of New York and photography.

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