Leap of Fate: Sunshine Superman Chronicles the Rise and Fall of BASE Jump Legend 

"We had agreed it was suicidal and had this feeling of doom. No one could survive that jump,"

Jean and Carl Boenish in Sunshine Superman, a Mgnolia Pictures release.

Magnolia Pictures

Jean and Carl Boenish in Sunshine Superman, a Mgnolia Pictures release.

Last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I saw the premiere of Sunshine Superman, an extraordinary documentary on the phenomenon known as BASE (building, antenna, span, earth) jumping, which will open in Boise on Friday, June 19. As I was exiting the film, I told a fellow critic that witnessing daredevils leap into a canyon was not an uncommon experience in my home state of Idaho.

"That's insane," my fellow filmgoer retorted when I said the city of Twin Falls not only didn't prosecute such behavior but, in fact, reveled in it as a tourist attraction.

"You really have to see it for yourself," I said.

My colleague waved off the suggestion, said "No thanks" and indicated that his stomach was already full of butterflies. The one thing we absolutely agreed upon though, was that Sunshine Superman is not to be missed. And it will trigger as much debate as it will awestruck wonder.

After BASE jumper James Hickey, of Claremont, Calif., fell 500 feet to his death in a ball of fire from the Twin Falls Perrine Bridge on May 7, Tom Aiello, who runs the Snake River BASE Academy in Twin Falls, told the Times-News that Idaho was a "right-to-live state where people are free to live according to their own dreams."

Hickey, was performing a "burning parachute cutaway jump," and had enlisted the help of several friends before jumping from the Perrine. The Twin Falls County Sheriff's Office said earlier this month it was not inclined to pursue criminal charges in connection with the incident. Meanwhile, the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce said it does all it can to attract jumpers (and their cash) to the area—the Perrine is the only man-made structure in the U.S. that allows BASE jumping without a permit. The chamber insists it couldn't ban jumping even if it wanted to: The bridge, built in 1976, is owned by the state of Idaho.

It was in the late 1970s that cinematographer Carl Boenish (rhymes with Danish), the centerpiece of Sunshine Superman, began mounting cameras on makeshift helmets and leaping from El Capitan, the gulp-inducing rock formation in California's Yosemite National Park. Decades before GoPro, Boenish was revolutionizing extreme sport and documenting the revolution. Above all (I mean that literally), Boenish was popularizing BASE jumping—he coined the term in 1981 to describe what he called his "art."

Sunshine Superman is also the compelling love story of Boenish and his wife, Jean. She serves as the narrator of the film and was certainly the more "grounded one" of the couple. Together, they planned—and he jumped—from still-under-construction skyscrapers in Los Angeles and Houston; Colorado's Royal Gorge Bridge; Norway's Trollveggen, aka "Troll Wall," and the 160th floor of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

"There's no future in growing up," joked Boenish. "I don't want to grow up"

Sadly, his wish was granted. After a successful jump from Troll Wall, Boenish returned two days later, on July 7, 1984, for another jump. His body was later discovered, halfway down the mountain, tangled in lines and his chute.

"We had agreed it was suicidal and had this feeling of doom. No one could survive that jump," said friend John Long. "Carl thought he could get away with it, but the mountain had other ideas."

Sunshine Superman director Marah Strauch fills her film with wonderful, rare 16mm home movies of Boenish that reveal his boyish enthusiasm before every jump.

"You have a feeling of freedom and power. I felt like Superman," said Boenish in one of the home movies. "There are many man-made laws that need to be broken."

It was the law of gravity that would seal Boenish's fate, however. Interestingly enough, we were told at the September 2014 premiere of Sunshine Superman that Strauch had wanted to title her documentary Gravity, but that had already been snapped up by the Oscar winning science-fiction/fantasy film starring Sandra Bullock. So Strauch decided to borrow the title from Donovan's 1966 song of the same name.

Strauch grew up in nearby Bend, Ore., and coincidentally, her uncle was a BASE jumper and a big fan of Boenish. Strauch said she had no idea about her uncle's passion until after he had died, when she discovered a box of films and videos of BASE jumping, including rare footage of Boenish. It was those images that led her on the high-flying journey that would result in Sunshine Superman, a stunning piece of work with urgent relevance (given the latest BASE fatalities at the Perrine Bridge and El Capitan) and a strong contender for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar. It's one of the best films of the summer.

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Sunshine Superman
Rated PG · 100 minutes · 2015
Official Site: www.magpictures.com/sunshinesuperman
Director: Marah Strauch
Producer: Lars Maroy, Jarle Bjørknes, Eric Bruggemann, Lars Løge, Dan Braun, Josh Braun, Alex Gibney and Samantha Horley

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