Near the beginning of “Superpower,” Sean Penn tries to pre-empt the criticism generated by his previous trips to conflict zones. “Weathered though it is,” he says in narration, “my famous face gets me access to places and people I may otherwise not have known.”
That is undoubtedly true, even if, in the past, he has used that access to lob softball questions at El Chapo. When it comes to chronicling the war in Ukraine, the subject of this documentary, which Penn directed with Aaron Kaufman, it is hard to begrudge the actor’s mission. Like the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has been making his own documentaries on the war, Penn appears to have one eye in the mirror, but at least he’s taking some sort of action.
“Superpower” began as a film about the unlikely presidency of the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and his path from comic actor to politician. Much of the first part consists of material Penn compiled from the preinvasion period. Experts lay out the complexities of the country’s 21st-century history. Ukrainians reflect on the legacy of the Maidan protests and express skepticism about Zelensky’s potential.
Penn scores a coup by getting an on-camera interview with Zelensky on the first day of Russia’s invasion, and he films him on two additional occasions, in a video interview and in person on a later visit. Zelensky’s words — about what his country needs, about how his 9-year-old has prematurely grown into being like a “wise political man” — are often familiar but still stirring. Potentially more of a stunt is Penn’s trip to the front, which seems as much about proving his mettle as getting the story.
Not rated. In English and Ukrainian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. Watch on Paramount+.