Carl Boenish didn’t jump out of planes because he was a thrill seeker, but because he was aiming to expand his experience as a human being. In “Sunshine Superman,” the eye-popping documentary on his life, Boenish expresses his love for sky diving and free fall jumps the way most would describe a divine sunsets. His lifetime of daredevil acts, which led to his creating the BASE jump movement, are spoken of a manner closer to poetry than Evel Knievel. After overseeing a feat in which a jumper free falls off a mountain, alongside a massive stone walls, Boenish declares the act as “glorifying mankind’s spirit of adventure.” If any one man exemplified (and possibly inspired) the Bodhi character Patrick Swayze played in “Point Break,” it must have been Boenish.
Marah Strauch’s documentary is mostly set in the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, the whole thing has an authentically “groovy” feel. Boenish’s cohorts are young, bearded and fearless. It’s fun seeing a young Pat Sajak interviewing Boenish.
It can be hard for film, documentary or not, to get inside the head of a man like Boenish. “Sunshine Superman” doesn’t probe too obtrusively but does get to the heart of something few of these movies can touch: Boenish is a cheerful man whose occupation comes not from self destructive impulses but from a genuine zeal he appeared to posses even when he wasn’t jumping off a mountain peaks. A friend of Boenish identifies him as a Christian Scientist, though Boenish comes across more earthy and reflective of the flower power movement than a conventional churchgoer.
The surprise of “Sunshine Superman” is that it becomes a love story. The introduction of Jeanne Boenish, her courtship with Carl and how their relationship tapped into his passion, is both compelling and adorable. There are unobtrusive, wisely low key reenactments that help visualize key moments of Boenish’s life in which no cameras were present.
The build up to his jump in Norway is suspenseful: turns out Boenish wasn’t a great hiker. He and Jeanne were attempting a never-before-attempted jump that was covered as a Guinness Book of World Records TV special by a young Kathie Lee Gifford (back when she was Kathy Lee Johnson) and David Frost.
Jeanne describes herself and her husband as professionals and pioneers, which I don’t disagree with. There is an inevitable disconnect between most “normal” people who would never jump out a plane and those who have done it hundreds of times. Yet, Carl and Jeanne seem less like adrenaline junkies than a couple who became professional survivors of supreme danger. The closing shot, a fitting tribute to Boenish and set to AIR’s “All I Need” is sublime.
This is thrilling stuff, providing a visceral charge that most action movies could only dream of.