SUPERPOWER. Penn/Zelenskyy, or a late TV report

Let’s be honest: if it wasn’t for the involvement of a Hollywood actor, Superpower would never have had a chance to be included in the program of a festival of such importance as the...

Jan Brzozowski

20 February 2023


Sean Penn left for Ukraine in early 2021. The goal is to make a documentary about Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A cultural phenomenon, a comedian who became the president of a democratic country. However, war broke out overnight, and Penn himself, who was in Kiev at the time, decided to change the profile of his documentary. For what exactly? It is not known until the end. He and his crew just started recording everything. First of all: yourself. Not much good came of it.

Because Superpower is in fact a terrible, barely watchable mess – editing, narrative, generally speaking, cinematic. The creators lacked a clear idea for the form of the document. Television archives are mixed with social media recordings, the time and place of the action change every few seconds. The same shots, the same statements return, the subtitles help in navigating between the shots (for some reason, each time with exact geographical coordinates), which would aesthetically fit into the new installment of Call of Duty – but they are like a fist to a serious document about war nose.


There are actually two anchor points in Superpower; two constant themes that run throughout the film. One is centered around Sean Penn, the other around Volodymyr Zelenskyy. About the former in a moment, because the latter deserves more attention. The president of Ukraine appears physically in front of the documentary filmmakers’ camera only twice – once at the very beginning of the war, and once after a few months of hostilities. However, he is present on the screen much more often. There are fragments of his public appearances, show-business past, short extracts from Servant of the People – a Ukrainian series that turned out to be prophetic regarding Zelensky’s presidency. With the help of these materials, the creators build a commendable, but banal and secondary card for the leader of Ukraine. Something that we have already seen thousands of times if we have a TV or computer with Internet access in our home.

Sean Penn on the warpath

Much more interesting are the occasional statements of people from outside the world of politics – ordinary citizens of Ukraine. Here, opinions about the president are skeptical. The supporting characters of Penn’s documentary often emphasize that they did not vote for Zelenskyy; an activist sees a problem in his business connections, a professional soldier believes that a true leader should “have balls”, denying this attribute to the president. The approach of the characters changes with the outbreak and development of the armed conflict. Somewhere between the lines, you can see how efficiently Zelenskyy united his compatriots by making a number of brave and right decisions, including the most important one, about staying in Ukraine after the start of the Russian invasion. At the end of the film, the same soldier who previously complained about the president’s masculinity admits his mistake. At the time of the test, Zelenskyy rose to the occasion, there can be no doubt about that.


Doubts arise, however, regarding the extensive fragments with Penn in the lead role. The American films himself while giving interviews, traveling, talking to representatives of the authorities (including Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish PM). He wrings his hands over the fate of Ukraine, staying on the roof of the most luxurious hotel in Kiev. A few months later, he sets out to portray the front, in full combat gear, in a bulletproof vest and with a helmet on his head. Of course, it’s hard not to admire the actor’s courage, and it’s hard to deny him good intentions – intentions, first of all, popularizing (even the appearance on Fox News can be forgiven). At times, however, an American in the most stereotypical sense of the word looks at us from the screen – an unconsciously narcissistic, Hemingwayian conqueror who, risking his life, provides revealed truth to his compatriots. Concerned about the fate of the world, he mutters something about the inevitable victory of love over the forces of darkness, with pilot glasses on his face or behind his shirt.

It’s a shame Penn doesn’t step out more often. When he does this, his film automatically becomes better – individual, extremely valuable stories resound then. Women who lost their lives during the Russian bombing. Two Ukrainian pilots who come to the United States to agitate for more military support. Members of the Dakh Daughters music group, which organizes anti-war performances. Somewhere beneath the surface of Superpower lurks another, much more interesting movie. Meanwhile, we are dealing with a TV report, dragged on and delayed by at least a few months. Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for the involvement of a Hollywood actor, Superpower would never have had a chance to be included in the program of a festival of such importance as the Berlinale.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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