“Sunshine Superman” exhilaratingly retraces the steps — well, lunges — of the late Carl Boenish, an aerial cinematographer and the father of extreme sport BASE jumping. His is a very colorful life story (albeit one that leaves some questions unanswered), vividly told here by first-time director Marah Strauch through a mix of plentiful archival materials, re-enactments and interviews with surviving colleagues. Likely to be compared to 2008’s “Man on Wire” in its larger-than-life theme and nostalgic tilt, it stands a good chance of repeating that documentary’s sleeper success when Magnolia launches its U.S. theatrical release on May 22.
A figure of somewhat fanatical enthusiasms, energy and enterprise, Boenish overcame partially paralyzing childhood polio to life a life of outlandish physicality. Already an experienced parachutist, he entered professional cinematography by getting hired to oversee the extensive wingsuit-flying sequences in John Frankenheimer’s 1969 skydiving drama “The Gypsy Moths.” Soon he was making his own 16mm movies to screen for fellow jumpers and lay audiences; at once such show, he met future wife and diving/business partner, Jean, a college student half his age. They made a publicity-magnetizing team, leaping from great heights with cameras rolling on their helmets.
Always seeking new frontiers in which to push their passion, the Boenishes and a few select others coined the term BASE jumping in the late ’70s. It created a society of people who, at that point, didn’t yet exist: Those who had jumped from all four types of starting points, encompassing buildings, antennas, spans (i.e. bridges), and earth (such as cliffs).
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Many of these activities fell into a legal gray zone, or were illegal (notably when Carl Boenish leapt from the top of buildings under construction, thus trespassing on private property). An extended sequence here follows the cat-and-mouse interactions between these daredevils and park personnel, as the latter tried to stop the former from jumping off El Capitan in Yosemite. “We don’t want to be limited by anything but nature — (we respect) nature’s laws, but not necessarily man’s laws,” Carl Boenish explains with a characteristic grin in one old interview clip.
Despite such snafus, BASE jumping caught on like wildfire among athletic adrenaline junkies. The Boenishes found themselves invited to stage high-profile stunts, the most fateful of which provides the pic with its extended narrative climax. A 1984 primetime U.S. sports special hosted by David Frost commissioned them to break a Guinness record by jumping from a sheer peak atop Trollveggen in mountainous western Norway. Immediately after that triumph, however, Carl Boenish made the still-mysterious decision to take a far more dangerous, even foolhardy solo leap, with disastrous consequences.
Apparently a good interpersonal fit because she was as tranquil as he was excitable, Jean Boenish responded to that tragedy in a way that struck some as perplexingly unemotional. Time has hardly rendered her any more histrionic, which closes the pic’s central narrative on a rather muffled note.
A BASE jumper herself who plays Jean in wordless re-enactment sequences, Strauch wisely ends the film on a spectacular visual high, with newly shot footage of wingsuit flying. In that recently invented, chute-less free-fall form, the semi-inflating “suits” provide their own buoyancy, making wearers look like a cross between flying squirrels and caped superheroes. It allows on-camera stunt personnel to safely complete the same leap that proved logistically doomed for Carl Boenish.
The man himself remains something of an enigma, although a delightful one — in contrast with “Man on Wire’s” notorious ’70s tightrope walker Philippe Petit, the viewer gets the sense that this film’s subject was driven by something grander and less narcissistic than an insatiable desire for fame. As one might expect of folks drawn to this sport, his surviving colleagues here are a colorful lot of (in his words) “basically fun-loving adventurers.”
First-rate assembly has a real dramatic grip as well as considerable lightheartedness, the obvious standout element being the large chunks of startling freefall and helicopter camera footage, both new and archival. Strauch and co-editor Eric Bruggemann also serve as music supervisors, their excellent soundtrack mixtape specializing in vintage Top 40 pop-rock classics (by the Hollies, Thunderclap Newman, Sweet, etc.) that perfectly complement the material.