For Sean Penn, his co-director Aaron Kaufman, and producing partner Billy Woods, what began as a documentary about the transition of Volodymyr Zelensky from comic actor to president of his country became Superpower (Paramount+), which finds Penn and his team on the ground in Ukraine as Russia invades and a hot war begins. Penn interviews Zelensky a few times in Superpower – including on day one of the invasion – and also interacts with experts, government officials, journalists, media personalities, and everyday Ukrainians as they pick up weapons and pledge to defend their country. “It’s been said that leadership’s first responsibility is to define reality and courage in the face of unspeakable terror,” Penn notes in his voiceover. “Volodomyr Zelensky has done that.”
SUPERPOWER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Penn ended up traveling back and forth to Ukraine seven times in the space of a year-and-a-half, and witnessed a nation in peacetime becoming a place of conflict. But the result was also his gaining a front-row seat to Zelensky’s emergence as his country’s leader. “This film is unusual,” the actor says during one of his diary entry-like voiceovers that pepper Superpower. “When Billy Smith and I set out to make this film, there’d been no recent sign of an accelerated threat to Ukraine by Russia. Most of what I knew about President Zelensky was that he too had been an actor, and that as president he had the very unfortunate international perception of having an attempt at him being puppeted by then US president Donald Trump.” Reality was already a mirror on fiction, as Penn and Smith planned to make a movie about a comedian and actor starring in a show as an ordinary guy who becomes president. (Servant of the People, starring Zelensky, ran between 2015 and ‘19.) But their film instead becomes a document of an epochal moment in Ukrainian history.
Superpower bounces between shadowing Penn as he travels through Ukraine in 2021 and ‘22, building up the context of both the country’s grassroots movement toward independence and the factors that led to Zelensky’s election, and interviews with observers in both Ukraine and the United States, who typically frame Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aggressive, invasive tactics as utterly toxic. Once the doc’s narrative thrust is redirected toward the war, Penn “does what I always do, which is listen to smart people” – the actor speaks with retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell, and Ukrainian defense ministry officials – and works to secure the production’s first interview with Zelensky, which finally occurs in February 2022, on the very day Russian rockets begin to hit Kyiv.
The war’s escalation doesn’t deter Penn’s desire for access. “For Sean,” Billy Woods says, “it was very important to get back to Ukraine.” And in June 2022, the cameras follow as Penn meets with Zelensky once again – the president is grateful for the platform, because it helps him reiterate his call for more materiel support from the US, and promote his peoples’ spirit as they fight for their sovereignty – and finagles his way to the war’s front lines. A local assisting the production makes a warning. “Can I be very blunt? You’re Sean Penn, but nobody’s going to be responsible for you dying on the front line.” But Penn is determined, and he soon finds himself in a helmet and tactical vest, squatting in a fortified bunker in Donbas, mere kilometers from a Russian artillery battery.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Netflix features the documentary film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which examines the student demonstrations and protests for social justice that rocked the country in 2015. And in the 2018 drama A Sniper’s War, available from Prime Video, a sniper becomes involved in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine and forces representing the West.
Performance Worth Watching: Superpower gets a jolt whenever Penn speaks directly with Ukrainian military service members, like a woman who joined the army after the Russian invasion and has risen to the rank of divisional commander. “I felt a duty to build a future for Ukraine,” she says of her decision to join the war effort. “Ukrainians are ready to fight for independence and their country. We are ready for this. It is our land, our country, and we will fight for every piece of our land.”
Memorable Dialogue: During a contentious 2022 interview with Sean Hannity, there’s certainly some framing from Fox News to present Penn’s insertion into the Ukrainian narrative as a standard move from a Hollywood liberal busybody. But the appearance also gives Penn the opportunity to present the new thesis of his documentary. “[Zelensky] is the face of something that you see in all the Ukrainians we saw and talked to, whether they were in uniform, out of uniform, schoolteachers, even children. This extraordinary courage that’s come up. It is clear to me that the Ukrainians will win this. The question is, at what cost?”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Right from the beginning of Superpower, a question forms in your mind. Why is this documentary happening, and with Sean Penn platformed inside of it? The actor has appeared in conflict zones before, of course, as well as at scenes of natural disasters, and has sometimes seemed to appropriate the vocational tools of a journalist. (Footage briefly surfaces of his unsanctioned 2016 meeting with Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.) But with Superpower, once war breaks out in Ukraine with Penn and his people inside the country, the doc finds its footing as an agent of illumination. Penn’s voiceovers can be a little heavy-handed. But there’s no question that he’s inspired by the resolve of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and the determination of Ukraine’s people to beat back the Russian advance. He just has to craft a doc, a little bit on the fly, which reflects all of that.
“Who do you think you are? Walter Cronkite?” Penn admits that there will always be questions about his motives. But he also says that if his famous face will allow access, then he can muster his natural curiosity toward a greater awareness of the events in Ukraine. Superpower wishes to connect the struggle there to an international fervor – how Putin’s invasion is just an opening salvo in what one Ukrainian in the military says is already World War III. And to do that, it doesn’t just rely on Penn’s grumbly and occasionally curmudgeonly persona, but rightly accesses the opinions of all the people Penn says are smarter than him. But while it makes some solid points about geo-politics in our momentous present day, the doc is more successful at finding common cause with the regular folks fighting for what they believe in, whether they’re showing Penn the bombed-out remains of their Kyiv condo building or directing him not to disturb the landmines strewn on either side of a rocky path that leads to enemy contact. Penn’s presence can kind of make him a meddler, and he sometimes leans into that. But ultimately, Superpower does provide a valid first-person perspective on the war in Ukraine.
Our Call: STREAM IT. At times, Superpower seems cobbled together from pieces of what Sean Penn was originally trying to do with the doc, before Russia invaded Ukraine. But when it finds its footing, and especially in the actor’s interviews with Volodymyr Zelensky, the film is valuable as an extra-journalistic look at the ongoing conflict and what it might mean for the world at large.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges