Inspiring a Nation – ★★★½
Lunch atop a Skyscraper is a photograph taken in 1932 featuring 11 men on an iron beam of the Rockefeller Centre, 800ft in the air. The story behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century may just happen to have an Irish connection.
With fitting narration from Fionnula Flanagan, we are guided through New York and through the tale of the 11 men. An image parodied so much and available everywhere it is easy to lose sight of its significance. Here we have 11 ordinary men sitting on top of the world coming from all corners of the globe, escaping poverty for America where the promise of new life awaits. These men are testament to the motto “work hard and you can do anything”. Risking their lives for a paltry sum of money but steadfast in their vision for a new beginning they perform a daily tightrope act with only the New York side-walk to break their fall.
Much has been asked of these men, who are they, where did they come from and is the photograph even real? It is understandable to question the validity of the picture when you stop and examine the sheer height the men are at. We can see Central Park sprawling out behind them and the overbearing skyline of Manhattan dwarfed below. Thankfully due to an extensive photographic archive held by the Rockefeller building there are many images of the photographers themselves straddling beams, in suspenders and spats trying to catch that all important image. These images are nearly as impressive as the main picture and a great find for director Seán Ó Cualáin.
The documentary plays as a detective story unravelling the various attempts to discover the identity of the men and the many dead ends. It was recently enough that Patrick O’Shaughnessy and Patrick Glynn made the claim that it was their fathers bookending either side of the 11 men. With some convincing evidence to suggest they are from the Co. Galway village of Shanaghlish, the claim seems like a plausible story but with no construction records of the men it will never be irrefutably provable.
This isn’t really the point as much as how the photograph became an image of hope for the bulging immigrant population. They could look at these men, no different from themselves and see how anything is possible. The birth of New York as we know it today started in the 1930s with buildings like the Rockefeller Centre. These men, whether they were aware of it or not, were making history. With great titles and a fitting soundtrack Ó Cualáin has clearly immersed himself in the period and presented us with a riveting documentary.
Ireland / Directed By: Seán Ó Cualáin / 71min / Documentary / Release: 1 February 2013 (UK/Irl)