A textbook example of a well-crafted feel-good doc ready-made for airing during PBS pledge drives, “Men at Lunch” is infectiously and unabashedly uplifting as it celebrates the American immigrant experience — especially the Irish-American experience — while focusing on the iconic 1932 photo of 11 steelworkers nonchalantly perched on a girder 850 feet above Manhattan during construction of the GE Building. Director Sean O Cualain industriously assembles evidence indicating that most (if not all)of those workmen — including, apparently, two brothers from the same village — hailed from the Emerald Isle. But this Irish-produced pic devotes even more time to placing those laborers and the products of their labor in a vividly evoked historical context.
Several interviewees (including documentarian Ric Burns) note the extraordinary dangers faced by high-rise steelworkers, and the photographers who immortalized them, at a time when progress seemed to rely on a cruel calculus: One dead worker for every 10 floors completed. Yet interviewees also emphasize that the vast number of ’30s Manhattan construction projects (partly enabled, of course, by availability of cheap labor) did much to jump-start optimism during Depression Era doldrums. Tech values are impressive.