Coinciding with the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine by neighbouring Russia, Sean Penn’s documentary Superpower acts as a rather grim on-the-ground reminder of recent events. Penn, the two-time Oscar-winner, has directed before — going back to The Indian Runner in 1991. But this film, which had its premiere out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival, is a rare foray into non-fiction, in what might be described as an unhappy accident.
Superpower, which Penn co-directs with Aaron Kaufman, who has previously produced films like Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, started filming in 2021, several months before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine. The plan was to focus on Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the former actor and comedian who shot to power with a mission to sweep corruption out of politics.
It’s understandable that Penn might be drawn to Zelenskyy, who even before the war started was a unique figure in world politics. As they arrive in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Penn and Kaufman interview various people, some of whom are critical or sceptical of Zelenskyy. As it becomes clear that Putin is mobilising his forces, some wonder if Zelenskyy will have the guts for the fight, or if he will simply roll over and let the Russians take over in the way Crimea was annexed in 2014.
What makes Superpower intriguing is the way it morphs from this portrait of Zelenskyy into reportage about the early days of the invasion. Penn and co are in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 — the day Russia invades. They even manage to speak to Zelenskyy a day or so later, deep in the bowels of a secure location. There’s something quite chilling about these scenes, knowing that missiles are striking across the city.
Penn and his team are then seen travelling by car towards the Polish border, the safest way out of the country, along with thousands of others. In the final miles, they have to abandon their vehicle and move on foot, Penn carrying his wheelie suitcase behind him. But over the course of the next few months, he does return, speaking to Zelenskyy again, both over video and in person. The Ukrainian President’s face looks more careworn as the weeks tick by.
Flak-jacket on, Penn even goes to the frontline, speaking to soldiers who are defending a bridge with Russian troops just on the other side. Other times, he’s deep in conversation with journalists or Washington politicos. But the film is at its most effective when he simply visits with those whose lives have been changed irreparably, meeting one woman who shows him her bombed-out apartment as she digs through the rubble looking to salvage possessions.
There are some fascinating moments in Superpower, not least that reminder that Penn actually met Putin back in 2001 when he travelled to Moscow with The Pledge, the third film he directed. With him was the movie's star Jack Nicholson. What one wouldn’t give to eavesdrop on that conversation. Penn also goes on US channel Fox News, which is known for its support of the Republican Party, debating in a constructive way with those who are the polar opposite of him politically.
Some critics have called this “an idiot’s guide to Ukraine”, though that does a disservice to a film that tries to condense what is a complex political and historical situation into two hours. True, the film is ragged at times, and Penn’s presence is a distraction in that we’re getting to see a Hollywood star exposed, out of his natural habitat. But that shouldn’t detract from a film that approaches its subject with integrity.
The film makes a case for keeping the war in the headlines. One year on from the invasion, Superpower is a stark reminder of why the West can’t forget what’s going on there right now. The ramifications for us all are there to be seen.