Originally, Marah Strauch wanted to title her documentary about extreme athlete Carl Boenish “Gravity.” But that was already taken. So she named it after the Donovan song “Sunshine Superman.”
It’s a case where the lesser film got the better title. Unlike the impressive CGI in Alfonzo Cuarón’s 2013 Oscar winner, the effects in Strauch’s spectacular and affecting portrait are real. And so are the people.
Boenish, for one, is a handful, a blur of impulses and enthusiasms that would embarrass an 11-year-old. In 1981, he, his wife Jean, and two cohorts coined the term BASE jumping to describe the art of parachuting off the four launching points initialized by the acronym — buildings, aerials, spans (bridges), and earth (mountaintops and other lofty geological features). Now a worldwide phenomenon (with occasional tragedies, as with the recent deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt), it started like a Merry Prankster-style stunt.
Boenish, however, pursued the sport with religious zeal. For him, jumping off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, or off under-construction skyscrapers in LA and Houston, had a quasi-religious significance. He felt compelled to share his experience and insisted on filming every jump with giddying intimacy using helmet cameras. He felt he was demonstrating that laws were to be broken, that the human spirit can overcome anything. Platitudes, maybe, but hearing the guileless, childlike Boenish proclaim them, they seem genuine. They drove him to gleeful extremes, ending with one leap too many in 1984.
Strauch centers her narrative around that event, opening with vertigo-inducing aerial shots of the Troll Wall, a toothy, towering otherworldly Norwegian mountain ridge where Boenish made his last jump. Following a circular narrative, she relates Boenish’s childhood bout with polio; his interest in sky-diving and film, which led to work in Hollywood; his formative BASE jumping adventures; his marriage to Jean; and finally the tragic Norwegian adventure.
Boenish’s widow provides the most enlightening of the interviews, offering insights into their vocation and their unlikely relationship (she was the grounded one, he the flightier of the two). But even she doesn’t have a convincing answer to the central mystery — what was Boenish thinking when he took the fatal jump?
He and Jean had just made the world’s highest BASE jump, the centerpiece for a David Frost-hosted TV special. Nonetheless, Boenish insisted on going out the next day, alone except for two guides, to jump again. Not from the spot they had jumped from before, but one which had been deemed “suicidal.”
Jean insists that Boenish had no doubt that he could make the leap. Hubris, perhaps. One of his guides recalls that just before he jumped, Boenish spoke of the gospel story of Christ tempted by the devil to jump off the temple. The devil said, surely angels would rescue Him? Pointing to his parachute, Boenish said, “This is my angel.”
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.