No, this isn’t a discussion about the rare comic book character. This is about the 2014 documentary on the life (and death) of the free-falling free spirit Carl Boenish.
Boenish’s passion was jumping from tall objects. A plane, a cliff, an antenna, a building – as long as it was tall, he’d pack his parachute, hike to the top, and leap from it. Eventually his passion led him and his inner circle to found the now well-known idea of BASE jumping, an acronym that stands for building, antenna, span, or earth, or the accepted spaces for fixed-point jumping.
Just reading a quick synopsis of the movie, I felt like I’d be watching a biopic of a manly-man adrenaline junkie. But while Boenish certainly enjoys the thrill of falling from great heights, he’s not an alpha male stud – he’s a kid in a man’s body.
It’s invigorating to watch Boenish smile, laugh, joke, and cavort. He’s pure innocence; the film makes it seem like he never had a bad day. He has no vendettas, no chips on his shoulder. Even when bureaucrats try to stop him from jumping off things that, in their opinion, he shouldn’t be jumping off of, he doesn’t go on a “fight the system” rampage. The “sunshine” part of the film’s title is certainly apt.
But was he also a “superman”? That’s a more complicated question.
The film follows Boenish as he quests for bigger and better jumps. Thankfully, Boenish was a meticulous, almost obsessive, filmmaker, so there’s plenty of old-school footage from the 70s and 80s. Most of the jumps are filmed from multiple angles, with some truly ingenious ones being used. One of the craziest moments in the movie is Boenish hanging over El Capitan, a 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, on a custom-built aluminum ladder, all so he could film his crew running towards him as they jumped.
The culmination of Boenish’s quest is a Guinness World Records jump from Norway’s horrifically beautiful Troll Wall. The publicity from this jump probably would have led to even greater things, but Boenish’s magical thinking finally caught up with him.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Boenish is dead. There is, of course, no present-day footage of him in the movie; coupled with how his friends and his widow talk about him, it’s clear he’s gone. I think most viewers will also suspect he died doing what he loved. What is surprising is the precise manner of his death: it’s strange, frustrating, and karmic.
In between the smiles and laughter, there are warning signs. Boenish’s happy-go-lucky existence is enabled by some outrageous thinking. For example, he didn’t go to the doctor when he broke his leg, for mystifying reasons; the improperly healed leg causes severe problems when they’re scouting out the Troll Wall. He was a Christian Scientist, and waxed rhapsodic about the interconnectedness of everything, and how he was obeying the laws of the universe by BASE jumping.
Did he have a messiah complex, or did he simply believe that God and/or nature was looking out for him? Whatever his inner thoughts, Boenish returned to the Troll Wall area directly after the Guinness World Records jump, jumping off a point that had already been deemed too dangerous. As one person puts it in the film, Boenish thought “he was the one person who could get away with it.” But he couldn’t. The universe doesn’t bend itself to the actions or thoughts of anyone, no matter how pure-hearted they are.
Boenish reminds me of Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild. Like McCandless, Boenish had an infectious spirit. Like McCandless, Boenish didn’t fit into normal workaday life. Like McCandless, Boenish doomed himself by overestimating his abilities.
So, in the final analysis, Boenish was not superman. No one is.
I have two main issues with the film: one, the amount of time spent on Boenish’s death. Boenish said he didn’t want people to dwell on his demise, and while this is an impossible injunction, the film does dwell overmuch, and it loses its momentum. Everything deflates after Carl is gone. While this is realistic, it doesn’t make for an absorbing end to the film.
The second issue is Jean Boenish. As Carl’s widow, she’s the go-to source for information on the man, and I suppose she deserves plenty of screen time, but that doesn’t change the fact that she isn’t a good storyteller. The first night the couple spend together is an almost unbelievably sweet and innocent scene, but Jean’s narration makes it seem as dull as dishwater.
I don’t expect professional-level acting in a documentary, but I do expect the creators to keep things interesting. Marah Strauch, Sunshine Superman’s director, probably felt compelled to focus on Jean, since Jean shared so much archival footage and cooperated in general – and, of course, she’s his widow. But alas, it weakens the film.
I rate Sunshine Superman three parachutes out of five. It’s a shame it doesn’t quite match its subject’s outsized life.