Writer-director Marah Strauch made a solid choice for the subject of her feature debut. Her riveting documentary, Sunshine Superman, follows the airborne career of Carl Boenish (“rhymes with Danish”), who repeatedly hurled himself off cliffs and buildings, pioneering what we now call base jumping. And since he was a cinematographer, Strauch also benefits from Boenish’s cache of phenomenal archival footage.
Indeed, it was a love of photography, not a passion for adrenaline, that spurred Boenish to push the boundaries of what skydivers could accomplish. He got his start filming parachutists for John Frankenheimer’s 1969 drama The Gypsy Moths, and it wasn’t long before Boenish was coming up with other harebrained ways to film humans in free fall.
If people can safely parachute out of airplanes, he wondered, why not off cliffs? So he gathered a team to leap from the top of El Capitan, a rock formation in Yosemite National Park.
Decades before GoPros went mainstream, Boenish was equipping his daredevil buddies with multiple cameras so they could capture their heart-stopping journeys in detail. And he took just as many risks to film them. To get the shot he wanted of jumpers running toward the cliff’s edge, he perched himself precariously on a bicycle seat at the top of a ladder suspended over Yosemite Valley.
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From cliffs, it was a short leap to buildings and bridges. Policemen and park rangers weren’t always thrilled with these adventures, but Boenish was less interested in the rules of man than the laws of science.
The footage that Strauch pieces together is gorgeous and astonishing, as men and women do their best hawk impersonations, soaring above Earth in brightly colored 1970s-era jumpsuits before opening their chutes.
And the childlike Boenish is a joy to watch: He’s Peter Pan with boyish enthusiasm to spare. The story of how he met and married bookish, bespectacled Jean Boenish, the unlikeliest of base jumpers, is also an endearing tale of two opposites inexplicably but sweetly drawn together.
Strauch has painstakingly constructed a celebration of this unique character, which makes the inevitably tragic finale all the more emotional. Even the re-enactments, which are always a risky choice, feel necessary and look artfully done.
Sunshine Superman might seem like a niche story, with its focus on stunts that most people wouldn’t dream of actually doing, but the documentary feels universal. It’s simply an examination of how one man fully embraced life while charting his own path.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas
Director: Marah Strauch
Cast: Carl Boenish, Cecilie Bull
Rated: PG (strong language, smoking)
Running time: 101 min.