There have already been so many powerful and illuminating nonfiction projects about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (including “20 Days in Mariupol,” possibly one of the greatest war documentaries ever made) that any filmmaker attempting their own entry needs to bring their A-game, especially if they’re not from Ukraine. When this chapter of history is closed and the storytelling about it is evaluated, “Superpower” will be a curious footnote.
The movie’s co-director, narrator and onscreen guide, Sean Penn, can’t decide what kind of movie he wants to make. So we get a generalized portrait of what happened during the last 15 or so years; a sensitive, picaresque work of battlefield reportage, using material gathered during Penn’s seven trips to Ukraine; a sardonic, self-critical but necessarily navel-gazing meditation on celebrityhood and politics; and an analysis of the way Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, used his own celebrity to become the nation’s president, essentially treating voters like audience members, figuring out what values they wanted to see incarnated by a president, then writing the role for himself and playing the hell out of it.
That last film is by far the most interesting of the ones that Penn gives us in this grab-bag of a movie. And it’s a shame, because the few relatively brief sections of “Superpower” that scrutinize Zelensky as a self-created political icon (in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Donald Trump) are the most authoritative and fascinating by far.
Penn, an experienced actor and writer-director as well as troubled person whose violence made him a tabloid fixture, understands performance at every stage of the creative process. He also understands the media’s tendency to latch onto a catchy narrative and milk it, and many more things that non-famous people might only understand in a secondhand way. “Superpower” is at its best when letting Penn and co-director Adam Kaufman put Penn’s spoken observations over clips pulled from early in Zelensky’s career, including talk and news show appearances, pieces of a presidential debate, and some innovative campaign ads and other material that play like pieces of a scripted television series or film by an auteur actor-director whose persona is so carefully crafted that he can afford to try out filmmaking experiments. (Zelensky even stages dynamic “walk and talks” like in a Hollywood movie, something that nobody can do well unless they’ve committed the lines to memory.)
Penn quotes Ronald Reagan and points out Zelensky’s use of comedy and music to engage viewers/voters. These parts of the movie are sharp enough that one wishes the entire project had concentrated on the idea of Zelensky as, essentially, an actor who wrote himself a scrappy underdog character who represented his own best fantasy of himself, played it so well that he won the presidency, then found himself having to play two more roles on top of it, wartime leader and everyman rebel, and nailed both.
The rest of the movie unfortunately wanders in and out of other modes. None are presented with as much relaxed authority. There’s a far less interesting shadow equivalent of the “Zelensky playing Zelensky” movie happening as well, in which Penn attempts to explain his obsession with traveling into danger zones to help people in trouble, using his fame and money to get into places ordinary people couldn’t go. Among other hotspots, he went into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and Haiti following the 2011 earthquake.
There’s a moment near the end where Penn and his crew are in a danger zone and we see Penn hiding a small knife on himself and mock-threatening the camera with his fists; it’s supposed to be self-deprecating, one supposes. But it falls flat for all sorts of reasons. Penn also says he’s constantly being asked why he keeps making like a Hollywood version of Batman, or an intrepid journalist in a Hollywood war epic. He says people ask him, “Who do you think you are, Walter Cronkite?”
But he offers no compelling answer to such questions, instead brushing them off as less important than the story he’s using his celebrity to help tell. This only makes us wonder why he didn’t avoid the topic entirely, rather than make us watch as he barely wrestles with it while simultaneously embracing the cliches he’s accused of embodying. As in Oliver Stone’s documentaries, but with considerably less erudition, Penn surrounds himself with experts—including diplomats, reporters, Ukrainian soldiers and citizens, and even men who are implied to have been James Bond-level spies—but doesn’t cede the floor, instead cutting back to himself listening to them, always with a respectful or grave expression. There’s already been a full-length documentary about this aspect of his life, “Citizen Penn,” which was made by a director not named Sean Penn and shows the conflicting aspects of his personality with a lot more insight.
The backbone of the movie is a compacted tour of recent Ukrainian history. It’s adequately presented, at the level of a nightly newscast segment. The best bits concern the dioxin poisoning of President Victor Yuschenko by Russian assets, and some citizens’ pre-invasion worries that Zelensky was too soft and compromised (by Russian friendships and money) to be a good president during anxious times. But it’s nothing you can’t learn from reading articles online. This isn’t a bad film by any means: it does a halfway creditable job of convincing us that Penn’s heart is in the right place (as an activist) even when the execution is sometimes too impulsive or clumsy. But it lacks focus. And that lack of focus pulls from the very thing that Penn wants us to learn.
On Paramount+ now.
Sean Pennas Self
Volodymyr Zelenskyyas Self – President of Ukraine
- Sean Penn
- Aaron Kaufman