Sean Penn’s Co-Directed Documentary About The Ukraine War Is A Silly & Superficial [Berlin]

Feb 19, 2023

There is a particular kind of audacity reserved for the wealthy and the well-meaning. Multi-award-winning actor and humanitarian Sean Penn co-directs “Superpower” with Aaron Kaufman, known mostly for his commercial work and his collaboration with writer-director Robert Rodriguez. Presented as a Special Gala at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the result is an outrageously self-aggrandizing, pathetically lightweight documentary. 
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Penn pulls double-duty as a presenter for the documentary, starting off acknowledging his own ignorance about anything to do with Ukrainian history until the Maidan Revolution of 2014 made global headlines. The documentary project started off as a portrait of Volodymyr Zelensky, interested in his journey from an entertainment star in Ukraine and Russia to a fictional president in the satirical TV series “Servant of the People” to the actual President of Ukraine, receiving 73% of the votes in a general election. As a politically engaged actor himself, it doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to understand how Zelensky would pique Penn’s curiosity. But he is significantly, and obviously, out of his depth when the project shifts its ambition to understanding the Russo-Ukrainian crisis. 
“Superpower” attempts to give viewers a crash course in post-Soviet geopolitics and to summarise the character and sentiment of Ukrainian people in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of 2022 through a patchwork of Vox pops, interviews with Ukrainian and international pundits, and a lot of footage of Penn nodding emphatically. He, too, is getting the crash course here. 
There is a chilling prescience to seeing political pundits — and Sean Penn — sitting around a restaurant table, drinking wine and vodka, and putting percentages of the likelihood of a full-on war happening, of the city of Kiev being set on literal fire mere days before it actually happens. Alongside the interviews and Penn’s dorky, oafish soliloquies about “extreme history” and “interdependence that allows for independence,” “Superpower” draws from a wealth of footage of the Maidan revolution, the War in Donbas, and the ongoing attacks on Ukraine. Hiding amongst the superficial shambles of it all is some truly harrowing footage: images of decimated residential buildings and schools, footage of people being shot with live ammunition at a protest, and charred and bloodied bodies of children, women, and men. 
Penn is at his most relaxed when he’s conversing with regular folk. “Superpower” lets them express their anger, their frustration, and their commitment without interruption. A woman shows Penn around her living room, which has had one of the walls blown off. A widow talks about the loss of her husband in the Maidan protests. A young man declares he’s never leaving Kiev, even if his house or his car gets bombed. 
When the first bombs drop on Kiev, the filmmaking team decides to stay in Ukraine, comfy in their hotel, until they can get out safely out of the country. But, not until Penn and Zelensky manage to meet. About an hour into the film, Penn’s big meeting with President Zelensky is a glorified meet-and-greet. Needless to say, the Ukrainian President has other things on his mind other than meeting Hollywood movie stars who want to fawn over what an inspiration he is. During the rest of “Superpower,” Penn and Zelensky meet another two times. Once over Zoom, with Penn commenting that the politician looks like “he hasn’t slept since we saw him,” and one last time in person, months into the conflict. It is imperative, the producer tells the camera, that “Sean and Zelensky get together.” For what purpose, exactly? Penn spends most of their meeting time speaking at Zelensky, fawningly declaring his admiration for his courage. At the same time, Zelensky asks for international allies to supply them with weapons as if he had reached some grand realization on his Eat Pray War trip to Ukraine. 
Penn’s admiration for Zelensky, the people of Ukraine, and their unified commitment to democracy is sincere, but “Superpower” is so stupid a film it’s galling to watch. [D]

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