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Sunshine Superman (2015) Review

Updated on May 24, 2015

I always wanted to fly as a kid. It felt like the ultimate expression of freedom. I used to daydream about how the wind would feel in my face, how fast I would go (not too fast), how high (not too high), and how I would balance my body weight. Over the years my relationship with my own mortality has blossomed, and thanks to the glory of the internet I’ve witnessed many horrifying deaths from many unexpected causes. So I’ve limited myself in the kinds of physical activities I will and won’t pursue, especially just for fun. One of those activities is skydiving. There is just no way in hell. What could possess someone, I ask myself. How deluded would you have to be to make that decision?

This new documentary from writer/director Marah Strauch has answered my question: very. The strange thing is, the jumpers themselves are the first to admit it, and proudly. Having that kind of perspective usually means you’re okay. And in fact the jumpers in this documentary are all well-spoken, highly educated, and highly trained professionals. It finally struck me that, hey, they don’t let just any idiot take a plane ride to jump out. A lot goes into it. The main element of separation between these people and others is that skydivers handle their fear differently and can overcome it. This allows them to accomplish feats outside our realm of experience and fathomability.

Enter Carl Boenish (rhymes with “Danish”). The central figure of this documentary is such an infectiously enthusiastic and inspiring figure that the people in his life, even those that knew him briefly, speak about the major impact he had on them. I fell in love with the guy. The beauty of Carl is that he successfully makes his choices seem like the most natural thing in the world, as it was his self-proclaimed mission to do. He wanted to share how attainable and exhilarating jumping can be for people who can’t fathom it. So he invented innovative ways to film it. His wealth of insane footage is part of what makes this such an incredible documentary subject. And yes, seeing every possible angle of the jump takes away the shroud of fear and mystery. Even if it’s difficult to watch at points, it kind of starts to make sense the more you’re exposed to it.

With this cinematic gold Strauch combines old news coverage and interviews from around this time period (late ‘70s to early ‘80s). Because at the time Carl’s movement from skydiving to jumping off of cliffs and buildings was a completely alien idea—there were extensive legal battles and police interventions—this footage adds a dimension of excitement and intrigue. Not only do we get the full story from the period, but Strauch also employs tastefully simple dramatic recreations of important anecdotes. These plop you in the middle of the relatable lives of the subjects, but avoid being distracting by focusing on their actions and not their faces. John Kaada’s period soundtrack completes the picture of the era while adding an easy-going yet high energy. The story really picks up the pace with Carl’s invention of BASE jumping (an acronym for the four types of platforms from which to jump—Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth).

In the midst of all this excitement is one of the most pure, adorable, and inspirational love stories you’ll ever see. Carl and his wife Jean shared everything. They were one of those couples that were living in their purpose by being together, no explanation needed. They supported each other and powered through every boundary they came up against. Their climactic moments in Norway bring their tale to a rare level of grandiosity and gothic beauty.

Carl’s story is a testament to the potency of our actions when we’re following our passion. Even more than jumping, it makes a full life seem attainable, even if it is short. For many of us the only way we’ll ever fly is by fully living in our purpose. In Carl’s case, it’s like somebody has hit us over the head with a mallet of symbolism, pointing and yelling, “Look, dummy! You can fly!”

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