An eerie pall hangs over “Sunshine Superman,” a documentary history of BASE jumping, the practice of skydiving off buildings, broadcast antennas, spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs).
That’s connected to both the movie’s main subject, Carl Boenish, who dreamed up the sport, popularized it and died practicing it, and the ongoing high-risk/modest-altitude carnage that it continues to generate.
The very week this movie opened, wing-suit BASE jumping pioneer Dean Potter and fellow jumper Graham Hunt died in the very park — Yosemite — where BASE jumping was born. More than 250 people have died worldwide doing this.
Marah Strauch’s film has a somberly celebratory air, capturing the manic enthusiasm of engineer-turned-skydiving cinematographer Boenish, a man who survived a childhood bout with polio and lived the rest of his life as if it was bonus time.
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“There’s no future in growing up,” he says in archival TV interviews. “We don’t want to be limited by any laws, except nature’s.”
So Boenish and his fellow pioneering divers leaped from natural landmarks that they weren’t supposed to leap from, and trespassed on incomplete skyscrapers and antennas — stunts that riveted TV audiences when the sport first broke out in the late ’70s.
Dangerous and reckless? Sure. That’s why Boenish made such a great spokesman for the sport, weaving poetic spin about testing the limits of “whatever the human spirit can accomplish” while evading authorities and making that one mistake that proved to be fatal.
Strauch deviates from the earlier BASE origins documentary “Valley Uprising” by zeroing in on Boenish, and devoting much of the film’s third act to the stunt — diving, with Jean, off Norway’s towering “Troll Wall” for TV’s “That’s Incredible! — and his death the following day.
The footage is striking, the memories of the man vivid, and the finale, a tribute to the next phase of the sport, winged suits, which Carl didn’t live to see, still stuns you. Even if you know two more pioneers just died flying into towering rock walls of Yosemite.