Review: Superpower


Individualist and political activist Sean Penn, possibly cringing at so public a media display, stepped onto talk show sets to promote his new movie, “Superpower.” Sean Hannity tried to engage him in political sparring, but he quietly just said, “I don’t agree with you.” Instead, he still went on to talk about saving democracy and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on which Hannity and Penn do agree.

One thing he wasn’t asked and didn’t volunteer? “What is the Superpower” referenced in the film title? Russia, US, Ukraine?

I teach English to refugees in a federal program at my local college. I have 12 Ukrainians and one Afghan. I asked them if they had heard of the movie. “No.” I told them it was about the war in Ukraine. Then I called on one of my new guys and asked, “What do you think ‘Superpower’ refers to in the title of the movie?” He gave a big laugh, “Zelenskyy, of course!”

And that’s how it really is. At some point in the show, perhaps from a clip from one of Zelenskyy’s movies or perhaps a clip from a documentary, Zelenskyy is putting his son to bed. He explains to his son that he is a Superpower because his son believes in him. And we infer, so does his country.

Penn made seven perilous trips into Ukraine to make this film. He was initially just curious to learn “where the television president ended and the real president began.” Elected in 2019, Zelensky seemed an unlikely leader. Clips from the antics of the comic actor give us a glimpse of Ukrainian humor, laced with slap stick and political satire.

Penn delivers some quick and essential history between Russia and Ukraine, but the main subject of this film is the Superpower, Zelenskyy, who campaigned to rid Ukraine of its oligarchy and corruption, stop the skirmishes with Russia and get Ukrainian territory back. He won by 73 percent.

Penn was in Poland in November 2021 when he took a train into Ukraine. Though Russia was amassing troops and machinery on “maneuvers” on the Ukrainian border, Penn films people saying, “It’s not a big deal.” As for Penn, he was interested in meeting an actor who had become president.

Zelenskyy gives Penn interviews during his filming of this documentary, including one the day after the war began. Penn says, “This is the center of the universe for democracy right now. They want to kill the president and the government and this building.”

Zelenskyy takes Penn and his crew to a special operations facility. Russian commandos had already taken the airport, which was 15 miles away. There was talk about how long it would take the Russians to take control of the city. U.S. President Joe Biden announced strong sanctions against Russia. Zelenskyy tells Penn, “That is not enough.” Penn then narrates, “We were looking into the eyes of courage.”

One of the last scenes shows a camouflaged Penn determinedly marching through an active Ukrainian trench, just like the ones we’ve seen in WWI films, to get a view of the Russian adversaries at the front.

“What motivates you?” Penn is asked.
“I’m curious,” he answers. “And, my famous face gives me access.”

Penn is an inspired narrator who has a message for the U.S. and the entire world. His heart has been won by the determination of the Ukrainians and their Superpower. He says, “It is clear to me that Ukraine will win this. The question is, at what cost?”


Directors: Aaron Kaufman and Sean Penn
Producers: Sean Penn, Billy Smith, Sergei Bespalov, Danny Gabai, Lauren Terp, Jenia Bilous, Eric Weinrib
Writer: Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Featuring: Sean Penn, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Joe Biden, Anderson Cooper and more
Released: September 18, 2023
Where to watch: Paramount Plus

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