Sean Penn is a brave man. He regularly shrugs off the comforts of Hollywood to parachute into sites of devastation and disaster, from Iraq and Venezuela to Haiti, where he notoriously commanded bountiful media attention over the course of a self-directed and extended embed during the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The actor’s new film Superpower is a documentary that goes beyond the photo ops and talk show appearances, and relays what it looks like, day after day, hour after hour, when an Oscar-winning movie star crashes a cataclysm.
Co-directed by Aaron Kaufman and produced with Vice, Penn’s Superpower was originally meant to be a feature film on Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the heroically buffoonish Ukrainian comedian whose anti-corruption bits and widespread popularity somehow translated into presidency. Around the time that the documentary project was getting started, though, Russia invaded Ukraine. Penn was on hand to spring to action, growling at the atrocity and stomping around the rubble – and rubbing elbows with power players and global leaders. A biographical feature became an autobiographical portrait of Hollywood humanitarianism.
The film is a mishmash of global news clips registering key moments from the Russian assault on Ukraine and diaristic footage showing Penn on his listening tour. Here is an insomnia-addled, cigarette-sucking, vodka-swilling citizen journalist who wants to chronicle the atrocities playing out in real time. Penn’s aim might be true, but his appetite for adrenaline appears to trump his ability to justify why he occupies a position in the red hot center of a global crisis.
Penn takes the stance of an innocent, yet a defensiveness runs through his spiel. The very day after Russia’s initial strike on Ukraine, a ragged-looking Penn pulls up to the president’s bunker for an interview his team has secured – but hasn’t prepared for. “I assume that journalists and quasi-journalists around the world would scoff but there was not one cell in my body willing to prepare a question for the president,” Penn narrates in his gruff cowboy drawl. “Not on a day like this. I hoped the film would be useful. That’s about it.”
By all appearances, Penn’s intentions are not bad. He has a platform and he is using it, not to line up free training sessions at Hollywood gyms or private dinners in Malibu but to embed in a war zone and spread the word about the atrocities he has been seeing up close. But this film offers little in the way of Ukraine insight. Instead it serves as a queasy-making examination of the celebrity-blighted news cycle where somebody like Penn is the de-facto messenger of tragedy.
With its rushed rhythms and diligent marshaling of facts that will probably feel familiar to regular readers of any international publication, the project’s most novel revelation is how fame lubricates access. One can’t help wondering about the seasoned reporters in the field who were and are left to piece the story together without prime seats at the tables where dignitaries and politicians break bread.
For all his freewheeling curiosity, Penn never seems terribly drawn to the stories of the people who dwell outside of the corridors of power. He lights up in the company of Zelenskiy, another entertainer in a body-con T-shirt.
A visit to a woman whose home has been bombed and who wryly explains that she won’t be serving tea seems cursory, a wasted opportunity. But maybe Penn is more sophisticated than he lets on and he’s offering a message that doesn’t come through on his CNN and Hannity appearances. It’s a nasty truth that would stand us in good stead come the next global crisis:
Blockbusters never revolve around the little guy.
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