Superpower review, Berlin Film Festival: Sean Penn’s Zelensky documentary is heartfelt and inspiring
Dotted throughout Sean Penn’s new film Superpower (which he co-directed with Aaron Kaufman) are shots in which the Hollywood star turned political activist is shown sitting in his Santa Monica home, talking earnestly into camera. He is reflecting on what he has witnessed during his various trips to Ukraine since late 2021. He has a respect, verging on awe, for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wartime leadership after the Russia invasion of the country last year.
That’s not how Penn felt about Zelensky when he arrived in Kyiv in late 2021. The first half of the feature documentary (which has been provoking a frenzy at the Berlin Film Festival this weekend) is riveting and often surprising. Penn and Kaufman originally set out to make an irreverent portrait of Zelensky and to find out more about this Chaplinesque figure who has somehow been catapulted to power. Many of the Ukrainians they meet in these pre-war days express scepticism about their leader. Some think he is too close to Russia. Others argue that he doesn’t have the “balls” to stand up to Putin. The filmmakers tell the unlikely story of how the comedian and actor became President. They investigate the legacy of the Maidan revolution but also look at the extraordinary levels of corruption in Ukrainian politics and public life. At that stage, they’re yet to meet Zelensky.
The film is produced by Vice Studios. Early on, it is shot in the freewheeling and irreverent way associated with Vice. Penn seems to drink a lot on assignment. There is a fascinating scene in which he is shown in which he is shown at a dinner with a cadre of top international reporters. As they knock back shots, they speculate as to whether Russian president Vladimir Putin will actually go the whole hog and launch a full-scale invasion. Most are pretty sceptical. The various foreign policy experts Penn interviews aren’t expecting Putin’s army to cross the border either.
About midway through the film, Penn finally meets Zelensky and the invasion actually happens. There are surreal scenes of Penn and his colleagues leaving the country shortly after the Russians arrive. Caught up in huge traffic jams, they eventually abandon their car and are shown walking down country roads, wheeling their suitcases behind them, toward the Polish border.
By now, the tone of the storytelling has completely changed. Penn is inspired by the courage and idealism of the Ukrainians in their quest for freedom and democracy. Back in the US, he campaigns tirelessly to raise support for Zelensky and even reaches out to his critics and enemies like Fox News host, Sean Hannity. For once, Penn and the right-wing demagogues have common cause in their shared disdain for Putin.
A few months later, Penn returns to Ukraine. “Welcome to my home,” a young woman says to him as she shows him around her apartment – or the remains of it – in a building which has just been flattened by Russian bombs. She is delving through the wreckage, trying to find anything of her past life she can preserve, perhaps photos or old family mementoes. Her air of stoicism makes the scene all the more poignant.
Once or twice, Penn risks seeming like a latter-day Ernest Hemingway, a little too fascinated for his own good by the war he is reporting on. You can’t help question his determination to visit the front line and to get within a few hundred yards of the Russian invaders. This, one guesses, not only endangered him but put his hosts and minders at extreme risk too.
The “superpower” referred to in the title is not what you expect. After the invasion, there is a new-found solidarity among the Ukrainians. They’re fighting for their lives, for their families and for democracy. No-one questions any more whether Zelensky has the “balls” for the job. Penn and Kaufman’s film about him is sprawling and uneven but also heartfelt and inspiring. It’s informative but has an immediacy which you rarely find in conventional news reports. The documentary leaves you with admiration not only for its subject, the comedian turned wartime leader, but for the doughty Hollywood star who put himself in the eye of the storm too.
Dir: Sean Penn & Aaron Kaufman; Featuring: Volodymyr Zelensky, Vitali Klitschko, Sean Penn; 115 mins