Actor-director Sean Penn‘s fascination with his professional colleague turned Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky knows no bounds. We saw this in his documentary Superpower, which premiered at the 73rd Berlinale. The project, which began in November 2021, took him and Aaron Kaufman to Kyiv to interview the leader on several occasions, and on one of them they encountered a foreseeable event that became a reality. The invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin took place while the filmmakers were in the capital and provided them with an exceptional moment.
The American actor’s political and humanitarian activity is not recent, it was unleashed in the wake of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – as happened to other show business professionals such as Brad Pitt, who became involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans – but it was after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 when he founded the NGO called CORE (Community Organised Relief Effort). His visits to the country were abundantly documented, offering a graphic display of his work (for example, carrying sacks on his back), which in these cases justifies the exhibitionism for the necessary work of dissemination and call for solidarity. This is especially relevant in their own country, where disinformation is compensated for by the appeal effect of the celebrity of the moment, who parades in Ciudad Juárez as well as on the red carpet of Hollywood Boulevard.
During the COVID-19 health crisis, CORE rose to prominence (remember the mass vaccinations at Dodger Stadium and the millions of tests given to impoverished citizens). However, following a report by Bloomberg Business Week, a reputational crisis has erupted in the organisation as allegations of sexual harassment and embezzlement by some members have been confirmed. This would be a tangential scandal, certainly less clamorous than the one that engulfed Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo in 2016 after interviewing drug trafficker Chapo Guzmán for Rolling Stone.
With this background, the Mystic River star takes on his 15th behind-the-camera project with panache, although his presence in front of the camera is so permanent that one would doubt who the protagonist is, were it not for the hagiographic tone and the surrendered adoration he expresses for the politician. Penn literally describes Zelensky as a being of courage and love. The messianism he bestows on the political figure, leader of a country at war, who masters the resources of communication professionally, is an ill-judged risk that drags the film down to heights of obvious ridicule.
The interviews with the president turn out to be a string of slogans, and after long waits in offices and bunkers, Penn fails to convey anything different from the speeches the president has made to politicians, influential groups and even film professionals, as he has done at the opening ceremonies of festivals. The communicator is very clear about what message he wants to send and what he needs from the international community, and he can certainly count on a loyal (effective is another matter) loudspeaker in the form of Superpower.
The mise-en-scène, with abundant close-ups of the director, deep in thought, delving abysmally into a tortured desire to convey the iniquity of the invading enemy and the statesmanlike virtues of his honoree, in a gesture of intensity that could win him his third Oscar, is garnished with props worthy of the Lost Generation. Vaping, smoking, flanked by bottles of vodka, whether in the hotel or on the various transportation vehicles, the actor literally goes out of his way to make his self-styled dummies’ guide a logbook for convincing his viewers of the right side of history.
Superpower features, as expected, archive footage, documenting the Maidan demonstrations in 2013, the departure of the previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the election of Zelensky, as a lesser evil. There is also no shortage of clips from the Servant of the People series and parallels/identification (did we say for dummies?). The turn of events altered a film that is seen to be building as it goes along, mostly focused on propaganda to rally support in the fight against Putin, rather than on drawing up an informed and documented profile of the Ukrainian politician, although interviews with ministers, influential politicians and former US diplomats abound.
At one point in the film, which is co-produced by VICE, Fifth Season and Projected Picture Works, Penn descends into a trench and asks the recruits for their opinion of Zelensky and, in the only authentic scene, one of them replies that the first thing is to win the war, the rest we’ll talk about. We wait, without getting them, for glimpses into the eyes of the Ukrainians, into their sacrifice and courage, into their fear as they disband, as they flee for their lives, but in the long queues, where cars are abandoned in the ditches, the camera has only one target to film, Sean Penn, carrying his luggage and walking towards the horizon.