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'Sunshine Superman': Toronto Review

Sunshine Superman
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The Bottom Line

A high-flying introduction to an extreme-sport pioneer

Venue

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF Docs

Director

Marah Strauch

The 'Pied Piper of BASE Jumping' gets his due

TORONTO — An irrepressible pioneer of BASE jumping contributes greatly to his own encomium in Sunshine Superman, Marah Strauch's very fine look at the legacy of Carl Boenish. Having made freefall photography an integral part of his enjoyment of the sport, Boenish (who died in 1984, just as he was achieving worldwide renown) ensured that any later documentarian would have countless hours of exciting footage; Strauch goes considerably further, mounting present-day shoots that offer in lush production value what Boenish's did in daring. The film isn't this year's Man on Wire, and not only because this eccentric hero died while practicing his passion. But it's a thrill, and one that seriously rewards big-screen viewing.

In many ways, the doc more closely resembles last year's McConkey, whose subject Shane McConkey paired skiing with the close-quarters parachuting Boenish helped popularize in the early '80s, and like him died accidentally in European mountains. But that film draws from the age of GoPro, in which wearable digital cameras have encouraged us to take POV daredevilry for granted. Boenish, by contrast, exists in an amber world of small-gauge celluloid, having painstakingly harnessed paperback-book-sized cameras to the helmets of folks who, while falling from airplanes toward the earth, could probably have done without the additional gear.

An engineer by training, Boenish gave that up when he realized he could support himself, sort of, with film: He helped John Frankenheimer turn Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman into barnstormers in 1969's The Gypsy Moths, then started making his own non-fiction shorts, claiming he would work for two years to produce each 15-minute movie.

Strauch introduces old partners, whose focus is less on shooting than jumping, and tells of their early days parachuting not from the usual plane but from El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. She finds the old head park ranger who was first their nemesis, ticketing them after unsanctioned jumps, then helped broker permits for the sport until its sudden popularity convinced him it was too unruly to continue.

Along the way, Boenish met the woman who'd become, after a sweet and intensely analytical courtship, Jean Boenish. Equally nerdy, and as level-headed as he was excitable (associates describe Carl as a "geyser" of cheerleading energy), they became inseparable partners in jumping as well.

Shut out of cliff-leaping for a while, the Boenishes and like-minded adventurers hatched the idea of BASE jumping, adding man-made structures to the list of heights they would scale. In stories of their sneaking around unfinished skyscrapers in Houston and Los Angeles, the film recalls Man on Wire; but this tale lacks a single gripping heist-like feat, and the legal attention the crew attracted plays like a comparatively mundane hurdle.

The big narrative Strauch focuses on instead is in Norway, where a 1984 TV shoot hosted by David Frost offered to let Boenish set a world record on camera by parachuting from a peak much taller than El Capitan. As they did in Yosemite, Strauch and DPs Vasco Nunez and Nicolay Poulsen supply some awe-inspiring aerial photography, using Wagner — what else would do? — to accompany gorgeous shots of the jagged ridges Boenish and company scouted for a spot that would be safe to leap from. One appealing site was dismissed quickly as unsafe. That's the jumping-off point that, the day after he set that record in a flawless descent, would kill Carl Boenish.

The emphasis given to this last chapter in his life makes the film slightly lopsided. While we understand the need to build dramatically to a final day that could easily be seen as an unforeseeable aberration, viewers may wish they'd spent a little more time getting here — watching footage of leaps from less mythic sites that, just about every time, makes the stomach drop as jumpers first surrender their footing. Those moments tell us all we need to know about why someone would risk his life like this. And scenes of Carl effusing to strangers and loved ones about what he did for a living make it clear that dying from it wasn't exactly a tragedy.

 

Production companies: Scissor Kick Films, Submarine Entertainment

Director-Screenwriter: Marah Strauch

Producers: Eric Bruggemann, Marah Strauch

Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Josh Braun, Dan Braun, Samantha Horley, Aurelie de Troyer, Helen Parker, Phil Hunt

Directors of photography: Vasco Nunes, Nicolay Poulsen

Editors: Marah Strauch, Eric Bruggemann, Kevin McGuinness

Music: KAADA

Sales: Submarine

No rating, 101 minutes