Superpower, Sean Penn’s documentary on Ukraine has the rhythm of a political thriller

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Abrupt explosions break out on a nocturnal city shot from above on February 24, 2022 at the beginning of super power, the documentary made by Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman premiered at the 73rd Berlin Film Festival. Almost a year after the start of the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this two-hour documentary tries to define the key points of the bloody and devastating conflict still ongoing. Stock footage of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, which ousted pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia’s near-immediate response to seize Crimea helps us understand the deeper reasons for the Ukrainian people’s resistance.

Sean Penn in Ukraine

We witness the genesis of the decision of Sean Penn and producer Billy Smith to leave to go and see firsthand what happens every day in those places of fear and violence. We live the preparations and in a moment we find ourselves with the Hollywood star in Kiev in the midst of the invasion. Penn interviews soldiers, ambassadors, journalists, and is interviewed himself reflecting on the condition of those countries that have attracted the attention of the world since the beginning of 2022. Crossing the border with Poland on foot and visiting the trenches in Donbass, Sean Penn tries to understand the truest aspect of the conflict in the name of a Ukraine that wants freedom and independence. Unlike many Americans who might dismiss this as “something happening down there,” Sean Penn feels the moral need to inform and show the world the facts. “Ukraine represents the greatest aspirations that we should all share,” he said in Berlin, adding, “It doesn’t matter whether Ukraine is a NATO country or not.”

Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor president

In his enterprise, Super power he also takes a long time to analyze the figure of one of the protagonists of these pages of history stained with blood and pain, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. The documentary shows us archival materials that present an actor, a comedian, a man loved by the people, ironic but also attentive to the needs of his country. By alternating shooting formats and photographic filters, Sean Penn and Kaufman construct an honest and realistic story in words and images, against the background of destroyed buildings, open flames in some corners of Kiev, accompanied by Justin Melland’s soundtrack.

War up close

Super power is a full-bodied and interesting documentary that feels like a serious and pragmatic political thriller. It offers new information, engages and raises awareness of the world’s audience about a war that is closer than you can imagine. In fact, Penn is not the only well-known face who appears in support of the cause, in addition to him there are colleagues such as Miles Teller, in a video call. We also get to know some front-line protagonists such as pilots and soldiers who talk about their training and their experience in the field. Particularly striking towards the end of the documentary are the various comparisons between Sean Penn and Zelensky, live and virtually, even from the secret bunker one day after the invasion. “If you’re not ready to win, don’t fight,” the president tells the actor, confirming his reputation as a great motivational speaker who inspired much of his people in this adventure full of challenges and obstacles.