Roughly three quarters of the way into Superpower, the documentary about the war in Ukraine directed by Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman, the Oscar-winning actor displays a fixed-blade knife while traveling by car through the embattled country. He jokes to the camera, “All of Ukraine should feel safe now that I’m armed.” He adds, holding up fists clenched like a boxer’s, “Plus, I’ve got these.”
It’s a rare moment of levity in a film that otherwise unfolds with deadly seriousness, for appropriate reasons: for almost a year now Ukraine has been fighting for its survival against a ruthless and unprovoked invasion launched by Russian president Vladimir Putin. The acquisition title held its world premiere tonight at the 73rd Berlin Film Festival. It serves a vital function, explaining the stakes of a war that some Americans may dismiss as something happening “over there” (just as many Americans did in the early days of World Wars I and II).
Penn, as the audience’s guide, brings essential moral clarity to the violent conflict, insisting that we must find “common cause” with Ukraine’s struggle for democratic freedoms and independence from a totalitarian aggressor.
“Ukraine is representing the greatest aspirations that we should all share,” Penn says, warning, “There’s no way it doesn’t come to everyone’s doorstep,” meaning those of us living in Western democracies. “It doesn’t matter if Ukraine is a NATO country or not.”
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As is often the case with documentaries, the project initially began with a very different aim – to profile Ukraine’s recently elected leader, the former actor, comedian and political neophyte Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had been dragged into America’s domestic politics in 2019 when then-President Trump pressured him to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter (the incident that led to Trump’s first impeachment).
Penn and a team including co-director Kaufman and producer Billy Smith headed to Ukraine in November 2021 with the understanding they would get to spend time with Zelenskyy. As they waited for the interview to come through, Penn and team traveled around Ukraine, speaking with military personnel, civilians and others (one Ukrainian soldier told Penn he didn’t think Zelenskyy possessed the cojones to deal with Putin). That footage shows Penn educating himself, and by extension the audience, about the roots of the conflict – the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia’s almost immediate response to seize Crimea (an aggressive act that drew only the mildest of rebukes from President Obama).
The West may have largely ignored it, but Ukrainians knew from that point on they were locked in armed conflict with Russia, as Putin fomented a separatist movement in the Donbas region in the east. Still, when Russia began amassing troops, weaponry and armored vehicles near the Ukraine border in late 2021, many outside observers, and perhaps even Zelenskyy himself, doubted Putin would invade. Penn was among the naysayers.
“I did not believe it was going to happen,” he admits.
Superpower plays like a visceral political thriller, with requisite tension-building score, GPS coordinates noted for filming locations and “digital computer-y” sound effects deployed to accompany fonts. It’s not until 54 minutes into the film that Penn gets his long-awaited sit-down with Zelenskyy in the presidential palace. As fate would have it, the encounter was planned for February 24, 2022, the very date Russia ended up invading. Remarkably, the Ukrainian president kept the appointment, even as his country came under full-scale attack.
“Great, great that you are here,” Zelenskyy warmly greets Penn. One may wonder why he would meet with the actor-director at such a time, but a hint is provided in something the president adds in somewhat broken English: “It’s very important now, all the support. I think you’re a voice Americans has to hear.”
That exchange gives insight into Zelenskyy’s awareness that Ukraine’s fate rested not only in Kyiv but 8,000 kilometers away in Washington DC. The defense of the country would depend to a very great degree on the willingness of the Biden administration to back Ukraine. The administration’s mettle, in the long run, would hinge on American public opinion. Zelenskyy, one can infer, understood Penn could help him make his case for support directly to the American people.
That’s but one example of Zelenskyy’s shrewd and inspiring leadership at a time of existential threat to his nation. Penn expresses unabashed admiration, rightly so, at his capacity to rise to the perilous occasion (Zelenskyy rejected a U.S. offer of a safe haven out of Ukraine right after the invasion, reportedly saying “I need ammunition, not a ride.”). Volodymyr shares a similar given name to his Russian counterpart, but the similarities end there. Putin has shown himself to be a bloodthirsty monster who cruelly and deliberately targets Ukrainian civilians including the elderly, children, and even pregnant women — witness the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol in March 2022. Zelenskyy, on the other hand – well, Penn characterizes him this way in an emotional interview with a Russian journalist:
“I believe with everything in my heart that this is a man of love, of intelligence and courage,” he says as his voice catches, “and I still believe that leading with love is proving itself to be the most powerful weapon on Earth.”
Superpower fulfills a critical purpose; not only is it a compelling portrait of bravery under fire – demonstrated by Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s armed forces and its people — but a stirring defense of democracy and the human yearning to be free. Some viewers may be inclined to roll their eyes at a “celebrity” investigating a geopolitical crisis, but that, in my view, would be an unfair and cynical exercise. This not a Hollywood lefty spouting liberal ideology; this is a man passionately arguing for values that should attract universal bipartisan agreement. Penn, I might add, serves as a concise and astute interviewer as he engages with a variety of interlocutors including diplomats, Ukrainian defense officials, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, and seasoned journalists.
The documentary raises urgent questions, like whether we should acknowledge we have already entered World War III, and whether the Biden administration’s approach to supporting Ukraine – holding back advanced weaponry that could allow for a decisive victory – is prolonging the war and guaranteeing a stalemate that ultimately favors Russia.
As Zelenskyy puts it in one of his conversations with Penn, his country is being placed in the position of resisting just enough to stay alive, but not to win. To make his point, he draws on an avian metaphor.
“To fly, you need two wings,” he tells Penn. “Don’t give me one wing and [then say], ‘When will you fly?’ I will never fly with one wing.”
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