Sean Penn Captures the First Russian Bombs Dropping on Ukraine in New Documentary 'Superpower'

Sean Penn (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy walk through Kyiv on November 8, 2022. (Ukraine Presidential Press Service)

Actor and director Sean Penn arrived in Ukraine in late 2021 with the hopes of telling the story of Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He would find himself in Kyiv when the invasion began in February 2022, when his plan changed into "something less controllable, but more meaningful."

Filming over the course of that year, the 63-year-old actor captured history in Kyiv as the first Russian bombs dropped on the city, speaking with Zelenskyy in an undisclosed bunker as ordnance burst around them before venturing to the war's front lines after the initial Russian invasion ground to a halt.

"The film we set out to make was not meant to encounter an existential threat to democracy, just the spirited story of a comedy superstar turned president," Penn says. The resulting feature, "Superpower," would instead capture Ukraine's fight for freedom.

Penn traveled to Ukraine seven times while making the film with co-director Aaron Kaufman ("Machete Kills"), and Zelenskyy remains a central figure in the story. According to its official description, "Amid moments of levity, inspiration and on-the-ground storytelling, the film shows that Ukraine's superpower lies in the strength of its leader, its people and ultimately its heart."

Also featured in the documentary are veterans of Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea, an invasion that resulted in the peninsula's illegal annexation. Civilians, other political figures and war widows tell their stories as well. Penn goes on to interview soldiers, including women who became snipers and children preparing for Russian forces.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the largest invasion to unfold on European soil since World War II, and has become one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 21st century. Russians outnumber Ukrainians 3-to-1 on the battlefield, but with Western support, Ukraine is punching well above its class.

As of August 2023, American officials believe an estimated 120,000 Russians have died fighting in Ukraine, with another 180,000 wounded. Ukraine has sustained 70,000 killed and 120,000 wounded. But with Russia's military force numbering around 1.3 million and Ukraine's at 500,000, there's a lot more killing to come.

"Superpower" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2023, marking the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion. It is set to begin streaming on Paramount+ on Sept. 18.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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