An interviewee featured in Marah Strauch’s documentary Sunshine Superman twice employs the phrase “like a geyser” to describe the figurative fountain of goodwill emanating from the late Carl Boenish, the film’s principal subject and founding father of BASE jumping, an extreme sport in which adventurers parachute from enormous heights of fixed structures. Given the sport’s tenuous legality in America, archival footage regularly sees Boenish circumventing the law to leap from places like El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. Yet in his cordial interactions with a compassionate, if scrupulous, park ranger, Boenish comes across more like a conscientious objector than malefactor. He even convinces the ranger, for a time, to decriminalize BASE jumping in the park, demonstrating an innate ability to gregariously ensnare anyone in his orbit. And that includes his wife, Jean, whose mild manner marks her as an unlikely candidate to seek so many sky-high thrills. Sunshine Superman, however, persuasively portrays BASE jumping not as a mere outlet for adrenaline junkies, but a counterculture where those stranded outside the barriers of conventional society seek to push past natural boundaries to intermingle with the metaphysical in midair.
This abstract idea is conveyed through reams of awe-inspiring aerial footage, much of it recorded by Boenish and his wife themselves on 16mm cameras. He refers to himself as a filmmaker first, and while that might be a mild exaggeration given his athletic pioneering, he nonetheless ingeniously dreamt up attaching cameras to his skydiving helmet to record the mind-bending descent. These images, so continually heartrending so as to never become redundant, astonishingly approximate what it’s like to literally fly through the air with nothing tethering you to Earth, and effectively function as visual proselytizing. They document the endeavor’s awesome endorphin high, yes, but also serve as a dynamic means to showcase a fringe sport for a wider audience, illustrating its relative sanity to those who might otherwise dismiss it as reckless.
Of course, the grave irony is that Boenish’s death was caused by his seemingly brash decision to jump from an imposing rock face in Norway that he and others had determined was too risky. If his reasoning for doing so is only ambiguously addressed, Sunshine Superman as a whole proves itself a compelling justification. Granted, the film refrains from psychologically exploring precisely what drove such a carefree nonconformist to these incessant death-defying feats, preferring lightly insulting offhand remarks by talking heads about him being “crazy” or the flimsily raised idea that a case of childhood polio aroused a penchant for constant movement. And it disappointingly leans too heavily on a voiceover in which Boenish declares that “nothing happens by chance,” as if he had some terrible premonition, fated to his demise.
Overall, though, the film makes clear that he was driven by joy and not by deep-seated fear, by an obsession with the past and not by forward-looking optimism; this was a man whose ultimate intent was to evangelize for what he loved rather than just pursue the rush. He made that fateful jump to continue paving the metaphorical road further into the great unknown, which is why the film’s concluding sequence, of a BASE jumper in a wingsuit that allows him to glide rather than simply plummet, is emotionally apropos, wordlessly illustrating the ongoing evolution of the movement, a soaring embodiment of Carl Boenish’s legacy.