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A Country in the Making

Sean Penn’s surprising new documentary explores “extreme history” in war-torn Ukraine.

· 6 min read
A Country in the Making
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with American actor, filmmaker, screenwriter and producer, Oscar winner Sean Penn. Alamy 

I don’t trust Sean Penn. Or at least, I don’t trust his political judgment. Like many celebrity activists, the actor’s remarks about foreign relations have frequently betrayed a reflexive taste for radical chic—anti-Americanism combined with a pronounced sympathy for despotic US opponents. Away from his work on the big screen, he has divided his attention between Malibu and the outposts of Fidel Castro (“a formidable and complex man”) and Hugo Chávez (“a great hero to the majority of his people”). He has even railed against the First Amendment and the free speech it guarantees those he disdains.

Behind Penn’s brooding persona and superficial earnestness about the world lies an unscrupulous lack of care that vitiates any claim to seriousness. In 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, he made his way to Baghdad to “pursue a deeper understanding of the conflict.” He never explained how this was accomplished by meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, one of the senior henchmen in Saddam Hussein’s fascistic regime. Instead, in a subsequent public letter, Penn denounced President Bush as “our country’s and our constitution’s most devastating enemy” and called for his impeachment.

Penn’s career as an engaged spectator would have benefited from being more suspicious of reactionary ideologies, and greater caution and moderation might have made him wary of the zealotry offered by blustering strongmen in combat fatigues and berets. But Penn is much more passionate than he is thoughtful and his poor instincts have reliably led him astray. He was never likely to be inducted into what the Anglo-American Sovietologist and anti-totalitarian writer Robert Conquest once called the “United Front against bullshit.”

All of which makes Penn’s new documentary about Ukraine a welcome surprise. After Volodymyr Zelensky’s 2019 election victory, Penn took special notice of the one-time comedic actor and decided that his improbable rise belonged on camera. He embarked on a documentary project about the actor-turned-president and made repeated trips to Ukraine. That modest endeavor was transformed by the Russian invasion on February 24th, 2022. Instead of a biopic about a comic-turned-politician, Penn found himself recording an “existential threat to democracy” that would shape the future of freedom in Europe and beyond.

Putin’s attempt to conquer Ukraine brought Penn into contact with the Ukrainian nation for the first time and enhanced his opinion of its president. His documentary, Superpower, is about the Ukrainian fight for its survival and the emergence of an altogether different kind of country. The conflict has transformed this seemingly godforsaken nation on the edge of Europe into the repository of extraordinary human aspiration and courage. “I do not want to go to Europe,” one Ukrainian activist affirms early in the film. “I want to build Europe here.”

This is the sentiment that spawned the Euromaidan protests in the winter of 2014, when Ukrainians filled the cold streets to demand closer ties with the West and an end to government corruption. That “Revolution of Dignity” caused Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych to flee the country after he was impeached by the parliament. This blow to Russian influence occupies a prominent role in Penn’s narrative of Ukraine’s struggle; it set the stage for the election of a political outsider who had promised to break the rule of the oligarchs and clear the way for the country’s admission into the European political and economic order.

Superpower is certainly not an objective or comprehensive documentary about the war; it is very much the product of Penn’s polemical vision. His film almost entirely omits non-Ukrainian subjects, and while Putin is its unmistakable villain—the dictator who took the Maidan revolution and its desire for democracy on his doorstep as an affront—he is overshadowed by Penn’s portrait of Ukraine’s war leader. In Zelensky, Penn has at last found a subject worthy of his admiration. Penn casts the Ukrainian people as an extension of their commander-in-chief, and compliments Zelensky in turn as the embodiment of those aspiring to independence and political liberty.

Of particular interest is Penn’s front-row seat to Zelensky’s command on the very day that Russia launched its full-scale invasion. After capturing the eerie atmosphere in Kyiv as Russia’s legions raced toward the Ukrainian capital, Penn and his team enter the Presidential Office Building after nightfall. While senior Ukrainian officials are girding themselves for the fight of their lives, Penn seems to be unfazed that he is sharing quarters with those directly in the crosshairs of the Russian military machine. “This is extreme history," he intones portentously. “The center of the universe.”

Behind closed doors, Zelensky cuts a figure of purpose. Flanked by advisors, the president affirms to Penn that war has come because Putin “hates Ukraine” for its democratic character, its Western orientation, and for being a reminder of what Mother Russia lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. Penn is plainly taken by this display and concludes that Zelensky was “born for this moment.” This is, after all, the man who is said to have rejected a US offer of evacuation at the start of the war with the words, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

After professing heartfelt gratitude to the United States for its robust military and financial support, Zelensky calls for more rapid transfers of weaponry to his army of citizen soldiers. What a shame, then, that after almost two years of conflict, the representatives of the Ukrainian state are still compelled to beg for ammunition against a seemingly endless supply of Russian conscripts. In light of Penn’s past activism against the American-led world order, it’s worth mentioning that Superpower lingers on America’s failure to deter Russian aggression and the halting pace of its military assistance ever since.

When he parts company with Zelensky on the day full-scale war broke out, Penn’s commentary sounds positively neoconservative: “It doesn’t matter if Ukraine is in NATO. We have to behave as if Ukraine is a full-fledged NATO partner.” (Does Penn realize that Ukraine’s NATO membership was proposed by George W. Bush?) Had that tone been adopted by the White House in advance of the war—and had Ukraine been supplied by past presidents with the kind of lethal assistance it has used effectively on the battlefield—Putin might have reconsidered his decision to escalate this stupid conflict. Even before Russian forces began to march on Kyiv in February 2022, the Biden administration’s threat of “very strong sanctions”—not to mention its decision to evacuate the US embassy in Kyiv—was strategically witless and Penn remains incensed about it.

Penn salutes the fact that Ukraine has no greater ally than the United States in its hour of need. But he gasps at Washington’s strategic fecklessness that first delayed and still hobbles Ukraine’s counteroffensive. The US has responded to the largest war in Europe since 1945 with such caution that Ukraine has bled (and continues to bleed) unnecessarily in the jaws of the Russian bear. After it formed an impressive coalition to support Ukraine, Washington has hesitated at every turn to give its people the tools they need to drive Russian forces from their territory. Factions in Congress have begun to agitate for cutting off assistance to Kyiv.

Penn intuits what Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, pithily summarized as the only recipe for victory: Ukrainian stamina and Western resolve. Western publics and their elected representatives have been slow to reach this self-evident conclusion. At the outset of Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian people promptly took the measure of what still eludes many Americans and Europeans about the stakes of this war. It is, for Ukraine, an existential contest. But if Ukraine is defeated on the battlefield, or dismembered at a premature “peace” conference, a harvest of sorrow will follow, and not for Ukraine alone. On the outcome of the battle raging in Bakhmut and Zaporizhia and Crimea depends the vigor of democracy in Europe and the security of the international system.

As soon as full-scale hostilities began, Penn notes, something vital changed in Ukrainian society: “It was a different kind of air I was breathing.” Amid a “heart-wrenching degree of danger,” the vast majority of Ukrainians recognized that freedom is the sure possession of only those with the courage to defend it. Having only discovered “the gift of freedom” in the post-Soviet era, one Ukrainian interviewee explains, there is scant appetite to surrender it without a fight. This general feeling has bred a “simmering unification” across Ukrainian society that didn’t exist before the war but which will almost certainly outlast it.

Superpower is the story of Ukrainian unity forged under siege. But Penn also wants to promote greater unity in American national life. After returning from one of his sojourns to Ukraine, he finds himself invited to appear on Sean Hannity’s show to drum up support for US global leadership. Though Penn believes Hannity to be a buffoon and a charlatan, he accepts the opportunity to make common cause with a domestic opponent. It would have been churlish, he reasons, to do otherwise while Ukrainians are being “vaporized.” If even Sean Penn can take such a step from partisan acrimony in the direction of political decency and moral seriousness, who among us won’t follow suit?

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