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For those paying attention to his year-long campaigning in support of Ukraine, Sean Penn covered a lot of familiar ground Saturday at the Berlin press conference for his latest film, Superpower, a documentary profile of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The actor-director spoke of Zelensky’s heroic wartime leadership, the Ukrainian people’s inspiring and universal fight for freedom and his own transformative experience of witnessing the war firsthand. But the one point he returned to repeatedly was more practical: a plea for the U.S. and NATO allies to provide Ukraine with long-range, precision missiles.
When asked by a journalist what he would say to Russian President Vladimir Putin if he had the chance to meet him, Penn said, “I find myself having no interest in talking to Mr. Putin at all” (later he described the Russian leader as both a “creepy little bully” and a “war criminal”). Penn said he was more interested in advocating for the Ukrainian war effort to “get the support it needs.” The actor said he believes that greater armaments are inevitable and that any delay will only drag out the conflict and cause greater loss of life.
“It’s a very odd time when the most significant humanitarian response that can happen right now is the delivery and supply of long-range precision missiles to a country under invasion,” Penn said. He repeated his argument several times during the roughly 40-minute press conference, describing the issue as a matter of “being on the right side of history.”
“We’ve seen that the German government has lately been, I think, a little clearer-minded in beginning to move support to Ukraine,” he added. “So, you know, it’s all of our intention on every changing day. As I said earlier today, we should all be supporting the supply of long-range precision weapons. That’s a key priority for the Ukrainians.”
The press conference also hit topics of greater levity. Penn features prominently in Superpower, as the film follows his multiple trips to Ukraine to meet with Zelensky and ordinary Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. And as many reviewers have noted, the actor-director’s lifestyle — Penn smokes constantly and appears to be seen drinking vodka cocktails on an almost nightly basis — isn’t shied away from on camera. The first question asked to Penn at the press conference was whether he was drinking so much as a way to self-medicate from the stress of the things he was seeing on the ground in Ukraine.
But Penn said he was simply maintaining his “general pattern” while in Ukraine and the drinking “had nothing to do in particular” with what he was experiencing.
Later, he was asked about the meaning of the baseball hat he was wearing, with a journalist near the back of the crowd pointing out that it seemed to say the word “kill” on it. But the hat, in fact, said “Killer Tacos,” a souvenir from Penn’s favorite taco shop in Hawaii. “Anybody who gets a chance to be on the north shore of Hawaii, this is the best taco — the best!” he said, adding that he hopes to one day be able to take Zelensky there.
The director spoke movingly about the relationship he developed with the Ukraine president during the course of making Superpower, which he co-directed with Aaron Kaufman. Penn interviews Zelensky in person three times during the film, with the first encounter coming on the very day after missiles first begin falling on Kyiv in 2022. Penn described witnessing Zelensky’s overnight transformation from a fresh-faced former comedian, whom many Ukrainians initially believed was ill-equipped to lead a war effort, into the tireless commander the world has come to know — one dressed in signature green camouflage and relentless in his pursuit of support for his people.
“It was a very moving way to start to get to know somebody and that affection only built over time,” Penn said of his first encounter with Zelensky. “Speaking from my side, I think that aside from, you know, meeting my children at their birth, the highlight of meeting and sensing a great human heart of courage was that day with that man.”
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