Last November, in a gesture that the actor himself described as “a symbolic, silly thing,” Sean Penn gifted one of his two Academy Awards to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to mark his emotional investment in the country as they continue to fight Russia’s invasion — attracting widespread mockery from social media and the entertainment press in the process. That this moment is not included in Penn and co-director Aaron Kaufman’s “Superpower,” a disordered, distinctly Penn-centric account of recent Ukrainian history, counts as one of the film’s few moments of self-awareness. As far as the rest goes, anyone watching this doc right after emerging from a two-year coma could be forgiven for identifying the Hollywood veteran as a key player in the conflict.
The sincerity of Penn’s interest in, and concern for, Ukraine is not in doubt. Having begun shooting on the ground in 2021, some months before war broke out in February last year, “Superpower” makes clear that its famous maker’s political activism is considerably more, well, active than the glancing lip service paid to the cause by many of his celebrity peers. How productive it is, within a global buffet of coverage and commentary on the crisis, is a question less easily answered by a doc that serves, at best, as a potted summary of events leading to the invasion, and its ongoingly calamitous consequences, for the benefit of news-shy viewers who need an American A-lister to bring it to their attention.
Whether that demographic is significant enough to secure major exposure for the VICE-produced “Superpower” following its Berlinale gala premiere is somewhat doubtful. The film’s most notable asset is a clutch of exclusive interviews with the unfailingly charismatic Zelenskyy, whose telegenic gifts as an erstwhile performer are a particular point of fascination for his fellow thespian here, but even those haven’t exactly been thin on the ground of late. As an interviewer, Penn is predictably fawning and not especially penetrating, though he jibes well enough with the khaki-clad people’s hero. As a commentator, he admits that “if [he has] a unique perspective here, it’s as a total Pollyanna,” which feels like one way of saying he has no great expertise to offer.
When the film wrests its attention away from Penn, usually for a dose of sobering archival footage, it’s straightforwardly informative, outlining the facts of the matter in solid-enough chunks. We go back to the 2013 Maidan Uprising that followed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an E.U. association agreement in favor of closer ties with Russia, and tracing the consequent rise in Ukrainian patriotism and independence movements that eventually found Zelenskyy as its figurehead, before he was plunged into more challenging leadership. Indeed, “Superpower” was initially intended to be a close-up portrait of the man himself, as a more positive model than Donald Trump for the merging of politics and celebrity, before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — a development Penn confesses he didn’t see coming — made the film into a more urgent war-zone portrait.
Still, even if the film had been able to stick with its original agenda, it’s hard to imagine Penn not being an equally intrusive presence on its portraiture. Too often, the film’s well-meaning reportage is muddled with needless vanity sequences of the actor-director as an on-the-ground trailblazer, as the film fashions the impression that Penn himself — as much as any news agency — is a vital courier of the horrific events around him to Western audiences. There are some impressively intrepid observations from the frontline, captured firsthand by Penn, Kaufman and their crew, but there are at least as many extraneous instances of them making themselves the story — at the expense of screen time with more useful interviewees like Kyiv mayor and former boxer Vitali Klitschko. (We could, however, do without Newt Gingrich popping up to lavish praise on Penn for crossing the aisle in extending his activism to Fox News.)
In scenes where they fret over how to get their production vehicle across Kyiv to the safety of their plush international hotel in the wake of the invasion, “Superpower” risks becoming its own making-of doc, complete with not-so-candid shots of a wild-haired Penn fretfully smoking, drinking and staring off into the middle distance. Just as obtusely self-aggrandizing, given the tragedy and carnage around them, is an interlude where Penn ropes in his pal Miles Teller, effectively on behalf of “Top Gun: Maverick,” to offer words of encouragement to Ukrainian soldiers — possibly a moment of warmth for those present that doesn’t really benefit from being documented here.
Still, Zelenskyy understands better than most the possibilities presented by a celebrity endorsement, however flimsy or self-serving. In the third and most relaxed of his interviews with Penn — the first a brief exchange at his Kyiv base immediately after the invasion, the second over Zoom — he makes the most of the platform offered him, genially but pointedly berating America and other sympathizing powers for still not offering adequate aid. “I will never been able to fly with only one wing,” he says. Is there any chance he’s also tacitly criticizing the limits of Penn’s own awareness-raising in projects like this one? Perhaps, though he’s far too much of a charmer to say so. If nothing else, surely Penn could have offered him both his Oscars.