Sean Penn seeks to shape Ukraine debate with new film on Zelensky

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On Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Sean Penn had a meeting scheduled in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a film he was making on the comedian-turned-politician.

Even while presiding over his country’s defenses in the largest land war in Europe since World War II, Zelensky kept the meeting with the American actor and his crew — though he made them wait a few hours.

It’s a seminal scene in Penn’s new documentary, “Superpower,” streaming this week on Paramount+. It speaks to both Penn’s knack for inserting himself into global crises and Zelensky’s canny approach to the public relations battle within the war.

Penn would return to the United States a few days later and book a media blitz, including an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, which years earlier had labeled the actor an “enemy of the state” for his relentless bashing of the Bush administration.

Penn said he still didn’t trust Hannity — comparing his appearance to the first session of physical therapy after a car crash — but cared more about spreading his message: America needs to help Ukraine win the war against Russia as fast as possible.

Superpower is a documentary about Ukraine’s wartime president starring Penn. It confronts his controversial quasi-diplomacy early on, showing historical news clips of pundits commenting on the actor’s various forays, from his meetings with Saddam Hussein’s deputies in Iraq to his friendship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

Why does Penn insert himself into the pressing global issues of the moment, he asks himself in narration that runs through the film. He’s curious, and famous, which gives him access — like a meeting with Zelensky on invasion day, and then a longer meeting a few months later, when Zelensky pleads for more weapons and delivers a metaphor to drive home the point.

“Don’t give me one wing and tell me to fly. I will never fly,” he says.

So far, the U.S. still has not provided the modern fighter jets Ukraine so desperately wants, and Zelensky admitted last week that Ukraine launched its counteroffensive too late, giving Russia months to fortify its defensive lines as Kyiv waited for Western heavy weapons to arrive.

Penn also befriends Andriy Pilshchykov, aka Juice, a fighter pilot who became one of Ukraine’s most celebrated war heroes before dying in a training accident this summer. Pilshchykov joined a delegation that visited the U.S. to lobby for F-16s.

Almost everyone Penn talks to in the movie wants the U.S. to provide more weapons faster, a view vehemently shared by the actor.

There are some revealing moments, even for those who closely follow the daily news coming out of Ukraine.

There’s great hope for what post-war Ukraine will look like, but also tremendous uncertainty. For example, Zelensky tells Penn he worries about the consequences of giving weapons to ordinary people — a fear that hits home in America.

At one point, Penn visits the front line, walking through trenches to within 150 feet of Russian positions just across a river. The local military leader is clearly harboring resentment toward Zelensky over how quickly his hometown was seized by invading Russians, but says he’ll save the questions until the war is done.

The film also zips through Ukrainian history and Zelensky’s rise. Despite winning in a landslide over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in 2019, Penn’s crew struggles to find an enthusiastic supporter of the new president in the months before the war.

One soldier fears Zelensky doesn’t have the “balls” to take on Russia. The film returns to the soldier months into the war. He has changed his tune.

Following a screening of the film in Washington on Thursday, Penn was interviewed by Major Garrett of CBS News. Penn laid out a case that will surely be repeated throughout his promotion of the film, including an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday and a return to Hannity Monday night.

Penn argues that every day the U.S. and NATO are not helping Ukraine win the war is another day that Ukrainians are dying. And he said the common reasons US officials give for holding back fighter jets in particular — training, language, maintenance — were “smoke and mirrors.”

“Many times in emergencies, restraint is the enemy of action. I think that there are influential people, perhaps influential with our president, who they themselves need to be encouraged to get out of the pure caution business, because it starts to translate to cowardice,” he said.

Seated in the audience were former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), one of the only U.S. political figures interviewed in the film.

Susan Zirinsky, the longtime CBS executive who is now president of See It Now Studios, introduced the film on Thursday.

“This is not meant to be fair and balanced. Quite frankly, even as a journalist, I don’t think that that’s possible,” she said.

Penn, speaking after her, disagreed. “I do think it’s fair and balanced, because there’s only one fair and balanced side to this story. This is not an ambiguous conflict.”

The film is being released as Congress gears up for a debate over just how much the U.S. should continue to be involved in Ukraine. While some members in the Republican party are outright opposed to ongoing support, the large majority of Congress continues to back Kyiv — though within that majority are divergent views on what that support should look like.

Penn is clearly aligned with Ukraine hawks in both parties, who have said the Biden administration has been too cautious since before the war started. And his movie makes little effort to explore why Biden and other western leaders have taken a more gradual approach. It does not make room for the type of debate advocated by the New York Times in an editorial this week.

“Firmly backing Ukraine…does not preclude an open debate on the scale and extent of America’s support, or on how the war might end. On the contrary, a commitment of this magnitude and consequence requires debate to justify public support, especially in today’s sharply rived politics,” the editors wrote.

Though most of “Superpower” was filmed a year ago or more, it does include a prophetic warning about how support for Ukraine will start to fragment over time.

A partisan divide has now clearly formed over the war, with a majority of Democratic voters in favor of continuing to fund Ukraine’s fight against Russia, while a clear majority of Republicans now oppose sending additional military aid to Kyiv.

And former President Trump is promising to end the war within a day if he returns to the White House, a plan that Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly applauded.

Zelensky is too savvy to wade into the partisan muck of Washington, even after being pulled into it during Trump’s first impeachment. He will visit Washington again next week to personally make the case that Ukraine’s cause is America’s too, that Kyiv is the front line of a global fight against autocracy.

If we don’t beat Putin in Ukraine, Zelensky warns near the end of the film, “America will fight in some years against the same enemy.”

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