Sean Penn’s “Superpower” renews Zelenskyy’s relationship with Hollywood to sell the politics of war

Hollywood has been in the military propaganda business since World War II. Throughout a movie career spanning more than for decades, Sean Penn has starred in his share of entries in that canon, beginning with his first credited role in 1981’s “Taps.”  

When he participated in that production and others earlier in his career, it’s doubtful that he considered that work as part of selling the American story of righteous might and the cost of heroism. But “Taps” and other titles in Penn’s filmography, like 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” are military stories attuned to the overall political tenor of their time.

Something similar can be said of “Superpower,” Penn’s latest documentary that he co-directed with Aaron Kaufman, although its status as a propaganda piece isn’t sublimated within a fictional narrative. Penn’s existential story of good fighting evil comes from the center of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which to most Americans has become background noise.  

Penn was already in Ukraine when the Russian invasion began, drawn to the country out of fascination with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s unlikely transition from comedian to the leader of a nation dragged soon after to the center of a scandal that led to a U.S. president’s impeachment.

Penn arrived days before the war began and decided to stay, correctly deducing that, like him, Zelenskyy would be acutely cognizant of the optics of having an A-list American movie star film interview him on the day Russian forces began shelling Kyiv.

Most American films depicting large-scale conflicts tout an anonymous hero’s role in a broader conflict, promoting the notion that the smallest, plainest person can be the difference between victory and defeat. “Superpower” takes the opposite view, positioning Zelenskyy as the face of a nation’s will, a role Penn depicts him as embracing with a movie hero’s resolve.

To America’s stars, Zelenskyy was and is one of them; to Americans, he was the kind of determined underdog we love to root for. Zelenskyy utilized that appeal to mount a winning social media offensive on Ukraine’s behalf and making himself available to Western news outlets whenever possible.  

Netflix resumed streaming “Servant of the People,” the sitcom that made Zelenskyy famous across Ukraine and Russia, shortly after the war began. The streamer also funded a trip for David Letterman to interview him before a live audience of locals.

To America’s stars, Zelenskyy was and is one of them; to Americans, he was the kind of determined underdog we love to root for.

But all this occurred when the war was relatively new and unreasonably expected to be short-lived. Nearly 19 months later, Americans are less sure about our part in assisting Ukraine. According to the results of a CNN poll released in late August, 55% of respondents feel Congress should not authorize additional funding to support Ukraine’s military efforts.

This is the sentiment meeting Zelenskyy as he’s scheduled to appear before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in New York, followed by a visit to Washington. In December he appeared before Congress to ask for additional funding. This time he’s expected to meet with President Biden and individual members of Congress as Biden prepares to ask for an additional $24 billion of support.

Americans make hits out of stories where we’re depicted as winners. With that understanding, Zelenskyy’s visit coinciding with the debut of “Superpower” is strategically astute.

“Superpower” has everything a doubting public could want in the way of reassurance, with its determined hero caping for an embattled nation and who happens to be a huge fan of its president. A brief tour of recent history helps too, by establishing how Zelenskyy differs from the previous oligarchs who earned Ukraine’s government a reputation for unfettered corruption.

Penn also chats with soldiers who at the beginning of the movie, and the war, scoffed at the notion that Zelenskyy would rise to meet the moment who are dedicated believers by the end. And it’s no accident that the name of the man to whom the film is dedicated, Major Andrii “Juice” Pilshchykov, is mentioned at the beginning instead of before the end credits.

Pilshchykov is the man behind the urban legend of the Ghost of Kyiv, an ace pilot alleged to have shot down six planes within the first 30 hours of the war. In “Superpower,” Pilshchykov asserts that the story is real, in the sense that it’s not simply one man flying but a team. There’s no secondary confirmation to this claim since, as Penn says several times, he’s a famous man and not a journalist. (That much was made obvious in his famous 2016 interview with El Chapo, which was more about him traveling to see El Chapo than delivering fresh insights about El Chapo.)

But establishing whether a piece of wartime mythmaking is true is less powerful than a scene featuring Pilshchykov, who was killed in late August 2023, chatting with Miles Teller moments after watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” “ace pilot” to the actor playing an ace pilot in the most successful American military propaganda to storm theaters in years.

In these moments and others, Penn lives out a conversation about fame’s usefulness in assisting crucial causes. “I’ve often been asked, ‘What’s a Hollywood actor doing by going to places of disaster? Of conflict? Spending time with alleged enemies of America?’ Or much worse: ‘Who do you think you are, Walter Cronkite?” Do you have a savior complex?'” he asks in a voiceover near the start of “Superpower.”

“The best response I’ve ever been able to muster is that I’m curious,” he answers. “I’ve been lucky in life to be able to afford to travel and weathered though it is, my famous face gets me access to places and people I may otherwise not have known. And sometimes, I feel I can be helpful.”

For most of the movie’s nearly 118 minutes, this is how Penn negotiates his fame, and Zelenskyy’s, and how each uses their high profiles to campaign on Ukraine’s behalf. “If we will not win now,” he tells Penn in one of the film’s later interviews, “Americans will fight in some years with this enemy.”

“Superpower” wrestles with the relationship between theatre and politics throughout the film, although it’s Penn who draws the focus of that idea more than Zelenskyy. Penn and Kaufman don’t attempt to downplay or hide this, leaving in exchanges where Ukrainian leaders cite their hope that Americans will listen to a movie star who is sympathetic to their cause.

“Weathered though it is, my famous face gets me access to places and people I may otherwise not have known.”

But they also don’t edit out moments such as when a member of their support staff says, “Can I be very blunt? You’re Sean Penn. Nobody’s going to be responsible for you dying on the front line,” before parting ways with him and his producer Billy Smith as they trudge into harm’s way.

 “We’re now living in a world where politics has become a part of the show business,” observes Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World before the bombs start dropping. Americans bought into that notion long ago – first with Ronald Reagan and in the extreme with Donald Trump in 2016 who, like Zelenskyy, had no political experience before winning the presidency.

With “Superpower” Penn and Kaufman are trying to redirect that force to serve Zelenskyy’s efforts and Ukraine’s. The star’s advocacy takes him to places he would not ordinarily deign to enter, including the guest chair on Sean Hannity’s Fox show, and brought Zelenskyy into America’s living rooms during the Golden Globes broadcast.

Penn advocated for Zelenskyy to appear at the Oscars in 2022 and 2023, but the Academy rejected that petition both times – a snub the actor and his co-director refuse to let slide by showing the news-making slap that dominated the 2022 Oscars instead, along with snapshots from Depp v. Heard. Each is an example of how easily distracted we are from geopolitical crises to which we aren’t sufficiently paying attention.

“Superpower” may not alter that course or the downward trajectory of Ukraine’s polling numbers with the public, but it might not have to. Penn has proven he has a way of getting in front of the people he needs to hear from or to be heard, even those he disagrees with or roll their eyes at the notion that he, of all people, is equipped to elevate Ukraine on the nation’s list of concerns.

Noting before his first conversation with Ukraine’s president that journalists and quasi-journalists would scoff at knowing there wasn’t “a cell in his body willing to prepare questions” for Zelenskyy, he simply admits, “I hoped the film would be useful. That’s about it.”

Perhaps it will – if people can look past Penn to appreciate Ukraine’s importance on the world stage.

“Superpower” is now streaming on Paramount+.

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