Actor and filmmaker Sean Penn discusses his documentary Superpower, at Hauck Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

While making the documentary film, Superpower, about Ukraine’s war with Russia, actor and filmmaker Sean Penn was moved by the way the Ukrainian people rallied to defend their nation. He said their unification was particularly striking when contrasted with America’s polarization, and one of his reasons for pursuing the story.

“Unity is an elusive thing for us, in this country called the United States of America,” Penn said before a packed audience at Hauck Auditorium. “It isn’t a luxury. It’s a human need. And to be in Ukraine and to feel that kind of unity was [healing].”

Released almost one year ago, Superpower depicts Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s unconventional path to the Ukrainian presidency and his country’s subsequent battle for freedom following the February 2022 invasion by Russian troops.

On Thursday, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford hosted a screening of the film, followed by a discussion with Penn and Professor Michael McFaul, director of FSI and former U.S. ambassador to Russia. The discussion was moderated by Natalia Antelava, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Coda Story and a John S. Knight Journalism fellow.

An accidental story

In 2019, Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian presidency with nearly three-quarters of the vote. Penn said that at the time, he had minimal knowledge of Ukraine’s recent political history, such as the Orange Revolution and the annexation of Crimea. But, like much of the world, he and his co-producer, Billy Smith, were captivated by the story of a young comic actor and political outsider turned head-of-state.

“We thought we’d follow this kind of interesting story that would have been a light-hearted take,” Penn recalled at Thursday’s event. But during filming, tensions in the region began to rise as Russian troops mobilized near the Ukrainian border, taking the film in a new direction.

“It was just an accident of timing that it led into this story,” he said.

The film shows Penn in Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 – the first day of the war – for a previously scheduled interview with Zelensky, who kept the appointment and spoke to Penn about the latest developments. In the film, Penn recalled the gravity of the meeting.

“On any other day, I might have been ecstatic,” he said. “But this was not anyone’s average day on planet Earth. And both this warm young president I’d just met, and his nation, were in a heart-wrenching degree of danger.”

The film follows Penn and his crew as they document the early days of the war and, later, a second interview with a more visibly haggard Zelenskyy in Ukraine.

Michael McFaul, Sean Penn, and Natalia Antelava discuss the war in Ukraine at Hauck Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Aiding Ukraine

The discussion turned to the current state of the war and how to support Ukraine’s military. The panel noted that America’s latest efforts to pass an assistance package have stalled. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s ground progress has slowed since the success of its counter offensive a year ago. Antelava asked if the window to save the country from occupation has closed, to which McFaul insisted that Ukrainians will persist with or without U.S. military aid, like rocket launchers.

“If we withdraw that stuff, they’re still going to fight,” McFaul said. “It just means that more Ukrainians are going to die because we pulled back.”

Currently, President Biden is urging lawmakers to approve a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine. McFaul said it’s crucial that the U.S. approve the package and implement tougher sanctions on Russia.

He added that while polls show most Americans support aid to Ukraine, American taxpayers can become disillusioned with funding wars abroad, particularly when it appears that U.S. allies aren’t succeeding. He and Penn noted that one way to relieve Americans and other Western supporters is to free up $300 billion in frozen Russian assets and redirect them to Ukraine.

“There’s no way that we’re going to give that money back,” McFaul said. “So, let’s give it to Ukraine now so that they can do the things that they need to do.”

When asked to reflect on the current state of the war and whether he was disappointed with the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine, Penn said: “I am, what I call, an obligated optimist.”

Art and conflict

Ukraine is approaching the two-year anniversary of the war. When asked about the timing of the film’s release and why he and his co-producers chose to stop filming when they did, Penn said he wanted the film available before the next presidential election. Reflecting on its production, he said that learning about the Ukrainian people’s history and their resolve to defend their country has made him more accepting of political differences in the U.S.

“I find myself increasingly embracing of anyone who commits to service, [even] if that person happens to be more conservative than I,” he said.

Connecting the documentary to Penn’s acting career in Hollywood, an audience member asked him if he would consider portraying Putin in a major motion picture.

“I think if you did it right, it wouldn’t be interesting because I think he’s uninteresting. There’s not enough humanity to tell an interesting story,” Penn said. “He’s a minor figure in our species. He’s a major figure in our disease.”

Penn said he’s hopeful for a positive resolution to the war and that he looks forward to meeting with Zelensky again in a peaceful Ukraine.

“I feel very grateful for the time that I have had with him, with his countrymen and women. It’s been a real gift of an accident in my life to be able to have that happen,” he said.

McFaul is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.