By Thomas Escritt
BERLIN (Reuters) -Late in the evening of Feb. 24, 2022, just some 15 hours after Russia triggered its invasion of his country, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy found time to receive American actor Sean Penn.
Sitting in a bare, apparently windowless room, Zelenskiy speculates on Vladimir Putin’s motives for the invasion in the central scene of “Superpower”, Penn’s feature-length profile of the president that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday.
“He wants us to be dead,” Zelenskiy says in the film. “He hates Ukraine. He hates us.”
In that moment, Penn said, he saw Zelenskiy’s transformation into the man of the hour. “He was born for that moment,” he told a news conference on Saturday.
Nearly one year into the invasion, Putin’s troops are still in Ukraine, intensifying assaults in the east in what Moscow calls a “special military operation” that has killed thousands and led millions to flee.
Directed by Penn and Aaron Kaufman, Penn’s movie opens in the months before the invasion, with Penn intrigued by a fellow actor’s transition from the film set to presidential office. The invasion dramatically raises the stakes, turning the filmmakers into passionate advocates for Ukraine.
“He started out as a fascination,” Kaufman said. “He was a David and Goliath character, but like David in that story he has turned out to be much more nimble – more nimble than the older Goliath Putin has become.”
Produced by Vice and shot in the close-in, handheld, web documentary style popularised by the media organization, the film charts a chain-smoking, vodka-tonic-sinking Penn’s efforts to understand Ukraine, its president, and its fight.
Penn and Kaufman advocate in the film for the United States to arm Ukraine, and in doing so make it clear that Zelenskiy’s decision to receive them on the first day was a deft move in Ukraine’s information war.
“If we don’t win today, then Americans will be fighting wars in some years’ time,” Zelenskiy tells Penn in a later interview, warning that a Ukrainian loss would have consequences further afield.
In turn, Penn hailed Ukraine as an inspiration. “Ukraine is the world’s Beatles,” he told reporters.
“This is not an unbiased film. This is not an ambiguous war,” Penn said when asked if he had wanted to shoot a film exploring a Russian perspective. “Putin has said far too much already.”
The camera brings the viewer uncomfortably close to the death and gore left by retreating Russian soldiers, but it is honest about the limits of what a Hollywood film star will go through.
“Can I be blunt?” one minder is heard saying. “You’re Sean Penn. Nobody is going to be responsible for you dying on the front line.”
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Clelia Oziel)