It would be very easy to poke fun at Sean Penn for making a documentary about the war in Ukraine: another saga of the rich and coddled movie star, daring—or deigning—to drop into a danger zone, bear witness, identify with the heroes, and fly back home unscathed.
At a few points in this film, Penn acknowledges the risk of mockery in his self-deprecating patter. “Who do you think you are—Walter Cronkite?” he mimics a hypothetical critic. “Do you have a savior complex?” He pauses and says quietly, almost with a shrug, “I’m curious … And sometimes I feel I can be helpful.”
It is in this spirit that Penn’s film—Superpower, now streaming on Paramount+—is worth approaching. If you have been following the news from Ukraine even a little, you will learn nothing new here. Even Penn’s three interviews with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky—one of them occurring just hours after Russian troops invaded—provide no insights you haven’t gleaned elsewhere in the past two years. This past February, in a press conference at the Berlin International Film Festival, where the film premiered, Penn called his film “the Idiot’s Guide” to the war.
Penn and his co-director, Aaron Kaufman, first planned the project as something very different—a profile of Zelensky, a “whimsical tale,” as Penn puts it, of a comic actor who played an unlikely Ukrainian president on a popular TV show and then, in 2019, actually becomes an unlikely Ukrainian president. By the time Penn and his team make their first trip to Ukraine, in November 2021, Russian troops are mounting on the border. By the end of their first real week of filming, the following February, the invasion has begun. Penn decides to stay—“I’m not prepared to leave tomorrow,” he tells his security chief, who urges him to do just that—and over the next year, comes back several times more.
For his first interview with Zelensky, just hours before the invasion, Penn decides not to bring in cameras, saying it’s so the president can size him up without pressure. This is understandable but puzzling. Zelensky has no doubt sized Penn up, as an actor viewing a fellow actor, already, and he will clearly want the interview for the publicity it can bring his struggle. More than that, Penn’s politeness turns out to be a cinematic—and historic—mistake.
Penn and his crew come back with cameras later that night—the invasion is now on, and Zelensky is in a bunker—and he notices a change. “It’s so crazy,” Penn says to one of his team members after the filmed interview. “We met this charming young president in a suit this afternoon. All of a sudden, he’s a wartime president.” He observes of Zelensky’s demeanor, “You were just looking into the eyes of courage.” In a later interview with Zelensky, more than a year into the war, Penn recalls, “I saw a change in you” between the afternoon and nighttime meetings—“like you were born for this moment … a moment of extreme history.” Zelensky nods in agreement.
It would have been nice—it might have been revelatory—to witness this change for ourselves: to see the contrast between Zelensky’s final moments as an ordinary person and his first moments as a national hero and a global leader.
In other parts of the film, Penn talks with a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a group of Ukrainian journalists (some of whom have doubts about Zelensky’s readiness just before the invasion but hail him as “fucking great” a year later), and a few victims of Russian attacks (we see their blown-up apartments, the wreckage of their towns), and he takes a quick trip to the front lines. This last sequence raises questions in the viewer’s mind (or at least in mine): Penn may have seen it as an obligation, perhaps a test of whether he could make the same transition from actor to something larger if given a chance, but one wonders if the trip was necessary. One of his escorts, a woman, says, “Can I be very blunt? You’re Sean Penn, nobody’s going to be responsible for your dying on the front lines.” In other words, he wasn’t allowed to face much risk, but his escorts were diverted from other, possibly more urgent tasks.
Then again, maybe escorting Sean Penn and his camera crew was the most important thing they could have been doing at the time. The West hadn’t yet stepped up its military assistance, which the Ukrainian army desperately needed. Penn’s presence—a movie star backing the Ukrainian cause—could have been properly calculated as worth quite a lot of time and trouble.
Penn knows this. Upon returning to the states, he goes on Fox, MSNBC, Russian TV—he speaks everywhere he can—lauding Zelensky as a “man with intelligence, love, and courage” who stands as the face of the equally courageous Ukrainian people.
This is an avowedly propagandistic film, a valentine to Volodymyr Zelensky, an unapologetic declaration of a movie star’s right and privilege to use his fame and riches to tout a political position. It’s a movie mainly about Sean Penn—though it’s Sean Penn as a viewer’s surrogate, coming to Ukraine as an innocent, seeing horrible things, meeting an awesomely admirable leader (who started out as someone like himself), and adopting a cause. Some may poke fun, but Penn seems sincere and deeply moved, so what’s wrong with doing what he’s done?
If you want to watch a film that grippingly captures the horrors and bravery of Ukrainians at war, check out PBS Frontline’s 20 Days in Mariupol. If you want to grasp the roots of the Ukrainian people’s revived hunger for freedom and independence (and see riveting filmmaking as well), watch Winter on Fire, Evgeny Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary about the 2014 Maidan protests that ousted the pro-Moscow government and set the stage for a new politician such as Zelensky and the possibility of resistance to Russia’s invasion. And if you want to understand the ideals of Europe, which inspired the Ukrainian protesters and which are now in jeopardy across the continent and here in the U.S., read Timothy Garton Ash’s brilliant chronicle Homelands: A Personal History of Europe.
Meanwhile, Sean Penn has set down an admirable document of his own explorations. It’s good that it exists.