On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Sean Penn and a gonzo documentary camera crew found themselves on the frontlines of war as they waited to see if they could interview Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Not only did he land that interview, but he continued to travel back to Ukraine to chronicle the horrors of war a total of six times for “Superpower,” a documentary Penn co-directed that premiered to a standing ovation at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday.
In the nearly two-hour-long film, produced by Vice, Penn underlines America’s shortcomings in supporting Ukraine in the war. Zelenskyy, who grows increasingly comfortable around the Oscar-winning actor in a series of interviews, reveals his frustrations at the lack of support in the form of high-impact weapons received from the Biden administration.
In a post-screening Q&A, Penn echoed Zelenskyy’s concerns. “It’s not so much about what if Ukraine loses, because they won’t, but…if Russia wins, we are all fucked. Just dead-set fucked,” Penn told the crowd. “As Americans, I can say we’re going to have to take on board a level of shame for not having scaled up sooner with the weapons.”
Penn explains early on in the film how he felt like a disbelieving “Polyanna” ahead of the outbreak of war. Footage shot before Russia’s invasion shows the actor kiboshing any suggestion of Russia invading the country.
In the film, Penn forges a deep bond to Zelenskyy — once an actor himself — as the Ukrainian president jokes about wanting to visit Santa Monica once his nation emerges victorious. Cameras follow Penn as he tries to escape the region and, perhaps just as scary, enters the corridors of Fox News to face off against Sean Hannity. In one scene filmed last summer, Penn even takes a group of Ukrainian soldiers to a movie theater to watch “Top Gun: Maverick” and gets his buddy Miles Teller on FaceTime to chat with them after the credits roll.
“Superpower,” which screened at Verti Music Hall, is one of the biggest world premieres secured this year by Berlin artistic director Carlo Chatrian, who has been under pressure to include more mainstream titles after a lackluster 2022 festival.
The premiere came a day after Penn made a surprise appearance at Berlin’s opening ceremony on Thursday, revealing that he’d come directly from Kyiv, where Penn first screened the film to Zelenskyy before bringing it to Berlin. At the ceremony, Zelenskyy also appeared via satellite to greet festival-goers and encourage them not to lose faith in Ukrainians fighting for freedom.
“Superpower” was not conceived as a war story. Rather, Penn and co-director Aaron Kaufman, and producer Billy Smith, set out to chart the trajectory of Zelenskyy’s career, from an actor-comedian-producer playing a history teacher elected as Ukraine’s president in the satirical TV series “Servant of the People,” to a rising political star elected as the real-life president of Ukraine in 2019.
However, following the outbreak of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the project had to pivot in order to become more of a profile of a modern warn hero. And a portrait of Penn as a chain-smoking, truth-seeking vigilante.