Sean Penn’s Zelensky Documentary – The Hollywood Reporter

It’s been almost a year since Russia shocked the world by launching an invasion — or “special military operation,” per Vladimir Putin — of Ukraine, touching off a bloody and devastating conflict that is still very much ongoing, with no visible end in sight.

The fog of war is so thick it’s hard for any of us to see through it, and in that sense, the documentary Superpower, co-directed by Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman, serves as a decent primer as to how the conflict started, what the stakes are and who remain the key players, with a special focus on Ukraine’s unlikely hero of a president, Volodymyr Zelensky. 


The Bottom Line

Both vital and vain.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special Gala)
Production companies: Vice Studios, Aldamisa Entertainment, Fifth Season
Directors: Sean Penn, Aaron Kaufman

1 hour 55 minutes

But after sitting through the two-hour-long exposé, one could perhaps be mistaken in thinking that another key player in the war is Penn himself, so much is the Hollywood star present in nearly every scene in the film that doesn’t involve archive footage (of which there is quite a lot).

We see Penn on the ground in Kyiv as the invasion happens, sitting through security briefings and press conferences, interviewing everyone from soldiers to ambassadors to journalists, riding trains and various chauffered vehicles all around Ukraine during three different visits, making his case to politicians around the world, crossing the border to Poland on foot and visiting trenches in the Donbas. 

It would be easy to write the whole thing off as one big and slightly dangerous vanity project, but let’s be honest: This war concerns all of us, and the actor is doing all he can to help the good guys. Putting his name and face on the conflict — including, at one point, talking with Sean Hannity and winning the praises of Newt Gingrich — is probably the best thing a star of his caliber can do to draw attention to the cause.

That doesn’t mean Superpower isn’t a bit irksome in spots, and there are times when you wish that at least one of its seven credited camerapersons would have aimed the lens at someone other than Penn, who is constantly onscreen. This is especially problematic when the filmmakers try to drum up suspense out of something as inconsequential as, say, the actor and his crew riding their production van from the Hyatt Regency to the InterContinental in downtown Kyiv just after the invasion starts.

They seem to be asking us to care whether a Hollywood star will make it back to his 5-star hotel alive, while the rest of the country could very well go down in flames. It’s a false move — and there are others, such as when we follow Penn, dressed in full military garb, as he tries to get as close to the eastern front as possible, with Justin Melland’s score kicking into high gear to accompany the action.

Other than those eye-rolling moments, Superpower offers a fairly comprehensive look at a conflict Penn himself admits he was “a complete Pollyanna” about, before embarking on a project that would eventually bring him face-to-face with Zelensky just as the war was beginning.

The latter’s rise from movie and TV star — including in the popular political satire Servant of the People, where he played an ordinary man turned president — to leader of a country rife with corruption and threatened by one of the world’s greatest superpowers is a story worthy of a whole other documentary. Once he was elected, nobody, including most Ukrainians, expected the former actor to be able to lead a stand against Russian forces, and one ex-soldier at first tells Penn that “he doesn’t have the balls for it.”

Of course, Zelensky has already proved the world, and Vladimir Putin, wrong. Probably the film’s most moving moment is when Penn finally sits down with the president for an interview in his secret bunker only a day after the invasion happens. Like other scenes in the movie, we get both a two-shot and a reaction shot so Penn is as present in front of the camera as his subject, but that doesn’t take away from the power and sincerity of Zelensky’s words.

“If you’re not ready to win, don’t fight,” he tells Penn during a second interview that occurred this past June, when the two talk about the war’s past, present and future. It’s phrases like those that have turned Zelensky into an international figurehead and inspiring motivational speaker, encouraging world leaders to back a country that’s been an underdog since the start.

The film underlines how Zelensky’s long career as an actor surely helped him behave so calmly and confidently in front of the camera. Seeing Penn and the president engaged, albeit on totally different levels, in the greatest conflict of our time, proves how much celebrities and politicians have always made strange bedfellows — and sometimes just a single bedfellow being both things at once.

Beyond those memorable interview sequences, much of Superpower covers events that anyone following the war this past year is probably aware of, resulting in a movie that serves more as a firsthand recap of all that has happened, and will continue to happen, for who knows how long.

Speaking gruffly and sincerely, his eyes sometimes shaded by aviator glasses, Penn reminds everyone he meets that democracy and freedom are on the line here, pounding tons of cigarettes, glasses of water and possibly vodka as he hammers his message home again and again. (The constant smoking and drinking may prove more risky for the 62-year-old actor than all his trips to the frontlines.)

If Penn’s point in visiting Ukraine, meeting Zelensky and co-directing Superpower was to make himself heard, then it’s mission accomplished.

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