That nosebleed you’re having? It’s not a special effect. But it may be the result of “Sunshine Superman,” destined to rank as one of the better American docs of the year, despite skirting one rather enormous question, and being slightly besotted with its subject.
The latter is forgivable. Featuring exhilarating, petrifying footage of people hurling themselves off standing objects, “Sunshine Superman” tells the story of Carl Boenish, the father of BASE jumping, a man of infectious exuberance, spiritual enthusiasm, no small set of testicles, and a deep devotion to filming everything he did – which helps make director Marah Strauch’s debut feature the remarkable thing it is.
Reminiscent of “Man on Wire” for its vertiginous virtuosity, “Sunshine Superman” (originally titled “Gravity,” which would have been better) is a film more closely akin to “Senna,” another sports documentary defined by its wealth of archival footage — which in this case is largely first-person. Fortunately, Strauch knows exactly what to with it.
She also knows how to dole out information in dramatic increments. Boenish, who worked as an electrical engineer and cinematographer before becoming intoxicated with parachuting from fixed launch points (BASE stands for Buildings, Antennae, Spans and Earth, a.k.a. cliffs) comes across as part motivational speaker, part New Age-y evangelist, an anti-charismatic leader of a movement who was apt to say things like “everything happens for a reason” — which is the kind of thing one would never say, for instance, to someone who’d just lost a child to cancer. To Boenish, however, it meant that if something went wrong with a jump, it was because someone had misread the laws of nature, which were always secondary to the laws of man.
Those laws included the regulations that — in theory — prohibited Boenish and his cronies in 1978 from jumping off the 3,000-foot peak of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a series of stomach-churning leaps that Boenish filmed with what might be called “plummet-cams” and provide some of the more visceral moments in Strauch’s movie. Executive produced by Alex Gibney (“The Armstrong Lie,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”), “Sunshine Superman” is part thrill ride and part love story – the romance between Carl and Jean Boenish, who became mutually devoted to the movement, despite several friends recalling that Jean as the least likely BASE jumper they could ever imagine. It is also a film about film.
In addition to Jean, Boenish was in love with cinema; he ranked filming number one among his professional interests, followed by jumping. He didn’t have effects at his disposal, and he wouldn’t have used them: Everything in his footage actually happened and if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been worth capturing. Boenish was also an Edison-like cinematographer who conjured up ways of making impossible shots. At El Capitan, for instance, he’d welded together a steel, ladder-like camera mount which was hung from the cliff shelf, over the abyss, with a bicycle seat at the end. From that perch, Boenish the cameraman took his shots.
But he and his team also wore cameras on their helmets, and shot each other from the air as they plunged from, say, the Crocker Bank building in Los Angeles, once the Park Service ran them out of Yosemite. They started using L.A. skyscrapers for their dives, and even creating making-of videos: In one of them, shot with very deliberate humor, two of Boenish’s colleagues run from a building after a jump and hail a cab, which picks up the men and their parachutes, and makes a clean getaway.
A suggestion of religiosity hangs over much of what Boenish is saying in the early going of “Sunshine Superman.” Only later is that issue directly confronted. As a child, Boenish was stricken by polio. When he returned to school after a year, he challenged every kid there to a foot race and beat them all. Strauch doesn’t engage in any armchair psychology; she allows others, mostly Boenish, to do the talking. But unexplained mystery surrounds Boenish’s last two jumps. They took place in different spots on Norway’s Trollveggen (Troll Wall), which provides an eerie, near-gothic backdrop to a story wrapped in existential mist.
Strauch creates enormous drama from the clips at her disposal — not just the Boenish material, but movie clips and found footage, all of which is deftly handled. The choices of period pop used throughout, which ranges from Electric Light Orchestra to Thunderclap Newman, is seldom predictable but always emotionally right (John Erik Kaada is credited with the music). As a movie about a guy who lived life the way he wanted, it will win certainly fans. It should win some for its execution as well.
“Sunshine Superman” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.