Some people have no fear and that has always amazed me. I guess I’ve been a fairly cautious fellow in my life so it’s easy to be in awe of someone like Carl Boenish, who threw caution literally to the wind for the bulk of his life. Who is Carl Boenish you ask? Well, he is the father of BASE jumping. What is BASE jumping you ask? Well, it is jumping with the aid of a parachute (or more recently a wing suit) from a fixed structure. When Boenish and his merry band of adrenaline junkies devised the term, it meant Buildings, Antenna towers, Spans and Earth – all of the different types of structures or formations from which one could jump.
Boenish was special person. He brought a certain energy that really permeated whatever group of people he was around. Once an engineer, he bailed on that profession after doing aerial cinematography for the film The Gypsy Moths directed by John Frankenheimer starring Hollywood heavyweights Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (all Oscar nominees or winners) and never looked back. Filming his jumps and creating films from them now took all of the focus in his life. However, he wasn’t satisfied with diving out of planes, so he took to diving from whatever tall structures or formations he could find, from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to unfinished buildings in downtown Los Angeles (still filming them). Of course, his new passion brought with it troubles, especially those of the legal kind. But Boenish and crew always found a way to get their jumps in, even if they had to do them guerrilla style.
Over the first hour of the film, Strauch tells us these background details, all of which lead up to two of the most important moments in Boenish‘s life – his marriage to fellow BASE jumper Jean Boenish and their quest for immortality with their record setting jump from Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway. He and Jean were like two peas in a pod and the sheer amount of archival footage that Strauch weaves into the film confirms this. She was never hesitant to do the crazy things he wanted to and for that, they were a perfect match. So, as part of That’s Incredible!, a television show hosted by David Frost and a young Kathy Lee Gifford, he and Jean jumped from nearly 6,000 and set the world record.
But as I said above, Carl was never satisfied and not even 12 hours later, unable to sleep, he took another shot at Trollveggen from a different jump site. Defying the advice that it was too dangerous to jump from, Boenish did it his way and jumped. Unfortunately, he hit the wall during the freefall and didn’t survive and the BASE jumping community lost their leader, and Jean her husband. As stated before, Jean was very much like Carl and only two days after his death, she jumped from the same spot…and survived.
This is hands down one of the top three documentaries I’ve seen so far this year. Strauch‘s approach handles the Boenish legacy with honesty and the same energy that Carl exhibited when he was alive. Filled with tons of archival footage and testimonies from his family and friends and much of it from Jean, we are really able to get a sense of who Carl was and why he loved doing what he did best. Strauch also takes a page out of Errol Morris‘ book using many re-enactments of scenes adding another layer to the depth of the film to great effect, placing the viewer in the shoes of Boenish himself. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength, however, is that Boenish‘s legacy is treated with such respect. Through all of the interviews with the many people he worked with and jumped alongside, including his wife, no tears were shed at the loss of his life or in their remembrance of Carl and the amazing amount of joy he was able to bring them all. This wasn’t because they haven’t mourned the loss of someone they respected and loved, but because they knew he died doing exactly what he was put on Earth for and who could begrudge him that? Expertly crafted with precision editing and great music to boot, Sunshine Superman really is an enduring portrait of a man most people American don’t know. To answer that, this is one hell of an introduction.
The film is brought to you by the good folks at Magnolia Pictures and it opens today in New York and Los Angeles but will gradually open wider in the coming weeks. Here is a list of venues and dates where it will play.
So if, in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, you find yourself looking for a film that lacks explosions, car chases and superheroes, look no further than this film. It will leave a lasting impression and hopefully inspire people to do what they love, what they feel they were born to do. Sunshine Superman takes on additional significance with the deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt last week during a wing suit jump in Yosemite.
Get there, people.
Here’s the trailer: