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Only this is no Hollywood movie, but rather a raw, unflinching documentary.
“Superpower” (streaming now on Paramount+) chronicles Penn’s seven trips to Ukraine before and after Russian forces invaded the sovereign nation in what is now a nearly 600-day conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.
Penn, 63, seems to have put acting – he had a brief appearance in 2021’s “Licorice Pizza” and was featured in 2022’s “Gaslit” – on an almost equal footing with his penchant for being in dangerous places (Syria, Beirut) with often dangerous people (Mexican drug lord El Chapo).
In “Superpower,” he acknowledges how this looks. “People say, ‘Who do you think you are, do you have a savior complex, do you think you’re Walter Cronkite?’ ” Penn says the answer is simple: “I’m curious, and my famous face gets me access.”
The result is a love letter to both Ukraine’s actor-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy − who this week will visit the United Nations and meet with President Joe Biden − and a populace fighting for its right to exist.
Where can I watch 'Superpower'?
“Superpower” is streaming on Paramount+.
Why did Sean Penn make 'Superpower'?
Penn initially thought “Superpower” would be a lighthearted look at a fellow actor (Zelenskyy was a popular TV comedian in Ukraine and Russia) who, rather incredibly, starred in a series called “Servant of the People” about a high school teacher who becomes president.
In 2019, Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine partly as a protest vote against a revolving door of corrupt past presidents. Penn’s first visit to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, was in November 2021, three months before Russia’s invasion.
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The American actor says his intention was to interview Zelenskyy to “find out where the real person began, as this was looking like a movie within a movie within a movie within a movie.”
When did Sean Penn meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
As fate had it, Zelenskyy and Penn met on Feb. 23, 2022, one day before Russia launched its invasion along the eastern border of Ukraine. The pair met again the next day, despite word that Chechen hit squads were looking to kill Zelenskyy and topple his leadership.
Zelenskyy has leveraged his familiarity with television and the media to keep his nation’s plight in the spotlight. Penn says he “had no questions prepared" for their meeting: "I just hoped this film would be useful, that’s it.”
Penn and his small crew decide to leave Ukraine the next day, driving west through a variety of checkpoints. They eventually abandon their car and walk across the border into Poland.
Was Sean Penn in danger during the making of 'Superpower'?
Penn spent the first day of Russia’s invasion in Kyiv as the capital was rocked by missile attacks. He and his team are seen shuttling between locations in the deliberately darkened city, the better to deny Russian gunners a target. Once at their hotel, Penn cracks, “Why is our hotel the one building lit up like a Christmas tree?”
On a return trip to Ukraine months after the invasion launched, Penn insists on going to Ukraine's beleaguered eastern front. Crouching in a bunker with a helmet and flak jacket, Penn is told that Russian soldiers are 150 yards away just across a river.
While anything can happen in wartime, Penn’s celebrity status looms large. At one point during his wanderings around decimated eastern Ukrainian towns, strewn with rubble and dead bodies, a Ukrainian military official says, “Can I be blunt? You’re Sean Penn, no one will be responsible for your dying on the front line.”
How does Sean Penn’s showdown with Sean Hannity figure into the documentary?
One highlight of the film is watching Penn’s appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program from April 6, 2022. Hannity had previously labeled Penn an “enemy of the state” on his show.
Penn goes on the show and tells Hannity he does not trust him, and focuses instead on the bravery of the Ukrainian people as they fight for freedom. The unlikely pair agree on the need for the U.S. to help Ukrainians defeat Russia. Of Zelenskyy, Penn tells Hannity, “This is leadership.”
(Penn makes a return to Hannity's Fox News show Monday at 9 p.m. EST.)
What does President Zelenskyy tell Sean Penn about American involvement in Ukraine?
“World War III has started, and Ukraine is the front line,” Zelenskyy tells Penn during a meeting in a park, hinting at a possible broader conflict should Russia's actions go unchecked. “We don't want Americans to fight here. But if we don’t win, Americans will fight (here).”
What quote opens and closes 'Superpower'?
Penn shares that he carries around in his wallet a long quote by writer William Saroyan that he says serves as a guide for living his best life.
“Be the inferior of no man, or of any men be superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself,” Saroyan wrote in “The Time of Your Life," a 1939 play that won the Pulitzer Prize. “In the time of your life, live − so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
Why did Sean Penn give Volodymyr Zelenskyy one of his Oscars?
In an interview with Variety, in which he also blasts artificial intelligence and Will Smith's Chris Rock slap, Penn says he gave President Zelenskyy one of his two Oscars (Penn has won best actor awards for 2004’s “Mystic River” and 2009’s “Milk”). Initially, Penn says he considered melting both Oscars down so they could be turned into bullets for Ukrainian soldiers.
The Oscar gift did come with one condition: “I told him to keep it and bring it to Malibu after all this is over and his country is safe."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sean Penn 'Superpower' documentary finds actor in thick of Ukraine war