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Superpower (2023) — Movie Review

Sean Penn is no stranger to danger zones. Frequently setting aside the glitz of Hollywood, he plunges into troubled regions, such as Iraq, Venezuela, and Haiti. His latest work, a documentary titled "Superpower," co-directed by Aaron Kaufman and produced in collaboration with Vice, aims to provide an intimate perspective on crises, bypassing media snapshots and short television segments.

Initially envisioned as a feature about Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine's comedian-turned-president, the film evolved into something different. Just as the project was taking shape, Russia invaded Ukraine. Penn didn't just sit back; he was on the ground, connecting with influential figures and documenting the crisis. What was meant to be a biographical exploration turned into a self-reflective account of a Hollywood star taking on a humanitarian role.

The film oscillates between global news updates on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Penn's personal observations. Penn becomes an unsleeping, chain-smoking, vodka-drinking amateur reporter committed to recording unfolding horrors. While his intentions may be noble, questions linger about why he, a celebrity, has become the epicenter of a global calamity.

Penn's approach is one of naive sincerity, tinged with a sense of defensiveness. On the day following Russia's first attack, Penn arrives at the Ukrainian president's underground headquarters. He is armed with no questions but a desire for the film to be impactful. In his raspy voiceover, Penn admits, "Not on a day like this. I hoped the film would be useful. That's about it."

Penn's noble aims aren't in question. He isn't leveraging his fame for personal perks but is instead venturing into dangerous zones to give voice to suffering. However, "Superpower" doesn't reveal much about Ukraine per se. Rather, it illustrates the perils of our celebrity-centric media landscape. There stars like Penn can inadvertently become the primary spokespeople for tragedy.

The documentary effectively highlights how notoriety grants exclusive access, raising concerns about on-the-ground journalists lacking the celebrity pass to high-profile meetings. While Penn might enjoy candid moments with Zelenskiy, his interactions with regular citizens seem perfunctory. His visit to a bomb-affected woman, who declines to offer tea, feels like a missed opportunity.

So, what is Penn truly trying to convey? Beyond his CNN and Hannity interviews, perhaps he's unintentionally revealing an uncomfortable reality that we should ponder for future crises: mainstream narratives seldom focus on the 'small folks.'

In a world increasingly captivated by the involvement of high-profile individuals in complex issues, "Superpower" serves as both a revelation and a cautionary tale. It pushes us to reevaluate the role celebrities can and should play in serious, often life-threatening situations, highlighting the limitations of viewing crises through a Hollywood lens.