The footage is breathtaking, and director Marah Strauch has created a debut feature that is on par with Man On Wire, another movie exploring the vertiginous daredevil inclinations of a true iconoclast.
It also made me very much want to never ever go BASE jumping.
The documentary captures Boenish's infectious enthusiasm for life and extreme sports, using archival footage, present-day interviews with BASE pioneers, and recreations of key moments to provide a rollicking tale of the sports' oddball background.
Boenish got his start skydiving, quickly gaining prominence for his skilled aerial cinematography. He considered himself a filmmaker first and a skydiver second, and was meticulous and creative at capturing 16mm film of his friends flying through the air.
Since Boenish took plenty of footage, the early days diving off Yosemite National Park's El Capitan are well-documented. Strauch chose breathtaking clips that showcase the daring jumps as a freewheeling good time. Boenish's talent as a cinematographer is evident, and the early images of starfishing groups of skydivers are beautiful. Seeing this footage it is the easiest way to understand the man's obsession with pushing boundaries to inspire other people.
Sunshine Superman is a love story between man and sport, but it's also about Boenish's courtship and marriage to Jean Boenish, who became his business partner and an equally adventurous and skilled BASE jumper. Though Carl was a fascinating figure, Jean — who remains active in the BASE jumping community — is even more compelling.
The interviewees who knew her when she was young appeared, to this day, in disbelief that the quiet woman they describe as a librarian not only BASE jumped but became one of the most influential BASE jumpers. Jean gives insightful talking heads about her husband's joyful, bonkers approach to life, and their romance is touching.
Here's the thing, though. A few days after the Boenishes set the world record for BASE jumping at Europe's tallest vertical rockface in Trollveggen, Norway, Boenish jumped again, by himself. And one of the sport's biggest legends died a gruesome death at age 41, smashing into the sheet of rock.
The film documents how Jean's stoic response, as she BASE jumped just a few days after Carl's death. It's abundantly clear in the film that she was doing what her late husband would have wanted, trying to quell safety fears and continuing to promote the sport.
But at the same time, fuck. BASE jumping is extremely dangerous, and no thank you forever.
If you've ever considered BASE jumping, I honestly don't know whether Sunshine Superman will get you fired up or give you some serious second thoughts.
My only issue with the film is that it focuses too much on celebrating a man who tested his limits without pushing back against his beliefs at all, and so sometimes it feels like a hagiography; Boenish's death is presented as a doomed accident rather than something that just happens to BASE jumpers. The mortality rate for BASE jumping is very high. It is badass, for sure. And Sunshine Superman is a beautiful movie that highlights the joy and camaraderie that makes the sport great. But whether or not the thrill-seeking is worthwhile is something the film never questions but I definitely do.
The movie celebrates BASE jumping and Boenish's life, but his terrible death obviously casts a pall over the happy-go-lucky tone of the film's beginning. Sunshine Superman is an engrossing, thrilling documentary, well-crafted and well worth a watch.