999 Words

Into The Wild: notes on Zelensky, Intertextuality, and Sean Penn’s “Superpower”

A benefit concert for Ukraine at the Notre-Dame Basilica was among the first post-covid public events I attended, in March, 2022. Abruptly, we went from not being able to leave our homes after 10 p.m., to gathering together in a cathedral with 600 others in support of a developing skirmish on the other side of the planet — a surreal twist for surreal times.

The event’s organizer, introducing the evening, spoke passionately about their fundraising efforts for the work ongoing inside Ukraine. She praised everyone for coming; she praised the musicians for offering their talents to perform; she praised the graphic designer for printing up the programmes so quickly, saying it was a “miracle” that they could get the job done in time.

I thought to myself: no, a “miracle” would be if Trudeau and other heads of state had instituted a crucial no-fly zone over Ukraine that the feisty young President, Volodymyr Zelensky, had requested the month prior; if the world had agreed to shut down to prevent actual deaths by war just as the world had shut down to prevent coronavirus deaths; if a madman megalomaniac didn’t need to prove to a small but influential group of Fletcher Memorial Homeowners that he was the most tyrannical leader the globe had ever seen. Ridding Russia of Rootin’ Tootin’ Vladimir Putin — now that would be a genuine miracle.

Just as we had emerged from an unprecedented pandemic, we found ourselves facing an unprecedented violent conflict the likes of which had not been witnessed since World War II. Yet, given all the combat metaphors that we had collectively endured in relation to covid — battle zones, front-lines, hidden enemies — all we had to do was tweak the rhetoric. Weapons were no longer vaccines; they were actual tanks and heavy artillery. Soldiers were no longer healthcare workers; they were real people in fatigues, with grenades and machine guns.

The dead, however, were still the dead.

At the time, newly elected American President Joe Biden had offered President Zelensky safe passage from Kiev to avoid engagement. As we now know, Zelensky replied defiantly with the most admirable ever riposte: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The West has been arming Zelensky ever since. And one of the West’s most powerful weapons is the screen.

Superpower Official Trailer

Volodymyr Zelensky was an immensely popular T.V. personality throughout the Post-Soviet world before he became Ukraine’s stoic wartime President. He even played the President on Servant of the People, a satirical television show in which Zelensky portrayed a Ukrainian everyman suddenly foisted into that role.

Then, like a Russian Doll emerging from another Russian Doll, Zelensky won voters over in a bonafide election by promising to fight the kleptomania and corruption that characterized Ukraine after gaining autonomy from the U.S.S.R. Following decades under Communist rule, Ukraine was finally moving westward, both culturally and politically.

Zelensky’s election attracted the producer Aaron Kaufman and the Oscar-winner Sean Penn to make a human interest documentary about his unlikely rise to power. But once again, the story pivoted. Just as Penn and Kaufman travelled to Kiev to interview this oddball sensation, Russia attacked, and Zelensky’s leadership priorities transformed in an instant from madcap to deadly serious.

Directed by Penn and Kaufman, known previously for producing Robert Rodriguez’s recent projects via Troublemaker Studios, Superpower is superficially conventional Vice Media-style fare, affording the material an extra layer of narrative urgency with rapid edits, accelerated pacing, and a constantly moving camera. The obvious comparison to make here is to Oliver Stone’s 2017 Putin Interviews, in which that venerable director travelled to Moscow to talk with Russia’s strongman autocrat, for whom Stone displayed a fanboy-like reverence. Stone played this same fawning role in the 2003 HBO film, Comandante, in which he interviews the late Fidel Castro in Havana, pitching the revolutionary Cuban leader one softball after another.

Viewed against Stone’s directorial prowess, Superpower is undoubtedly second-rate. However, Penn is a better director of attention than is Stone, who has yet to express a moral stand against this war. Whenever Penn is asked why he takes on subjects like Zelensky, he invariably gives the same answer: Penn wants to use his celebrity to attract good attention to just causes the globe over. It’s an admirable project. Plus, Penn’s Superpower seems less about displays of cinematic craftsmanship and more about producing an important record of an unparalleled time in modern human history.

After years of moral bankruptcy that saw the lad-era magazine publish edgy articles like “Can Vegan Bros Eat Pussy,” and photo shoots based on famous female authors’ suicides, Vice Media, the production company behind Superpower, is now financially bankrupt. I’ve had perennial problems with the Montreal-born Vice’s jokey approach to the news, as if the world were one big frat boy prank. And though Penn exudes that same devil-may-care ethos, films like Superpower represent significant turns towards adulthood for Vice. It is ironic that going broke might have been precisely what the company needed to transform itself from hipster doofus bible into the vanguard of underground broadcasting — a baptism by fire.

Before their untimely deaths, both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, America’s greatest critics, considered Sean Penn to be among America’s greatest actors, especially high praise from two rigorously smart and righteously opinionated men who seldom agreed on anything. Surely, an actor as convincing as Penn would gravitate towards another actor like Zelensky, whose Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko character must resurface regularly now in Ukrainians’ minds.

It is an intertextual trip following real-life Penn and real-life Zelensky through a war-torn nation, as the audience catches consecutive glimpses of Penn’s most memorable fictional roles: look, it’s First Sgt. Welsh of The Thin Red Line! Wait, now it’s Meserve from Casualties of War! And isn’t that Bobby Cooper of Oliver Stone’s U Turn?

Penn’s rehabilitation from naughty Hollywood celebrity into Vice’s most virtuous investigative journalist is nothing short of miraculous. Still, the real miracle would be peace for Ukraine.◼︎

Superpower is streaming now on Paramount+.