Superpower: A Documentary on Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Journey as Ukrainian President

A Documentary on Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Sean Penn and his pal Aaron Kaufman went to Ukraine to film a documentary about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What they ended up with is a movie that’s both informative and powerful.

A political novice with little traditional experience, Zelensky rallied his nation in its struggle to fight off a nuclear-armed Russia. This engrossing doc chronicles his incredible journey.

What is the film about?

In 2022, actor Sean Penn traveled to Ukraine to learn more about the man who had recently become president. His film, Superpower, follows Volodymyr Zelensky from his days as a comedian to his leadership of the country in its fight against Putin’s invasion.

While it is clear that Penn and director Aaron Kaufman were drawn to Zelensky’s path from movie star to politician, the film is also an important portrait of a nation in crisis. Experts lay out the complexities of the war, while testimonies from the people—including soldiers and a widow who lost her husband during the protests in Maidan—provide levity and inspiration.

In one of the film’s most revealing moments, Penn interviews Zelensky just hours before Russia invaded. Though polite, he is obviously sizing the leader up and is aware of the value this interview will have for his struggle. It is a moment that underscores Zelensky’s media savviness and helps explain his success as both a character and a president.

How did Zelensky become president?

Before Zelensky won the presidency in a landslide, many Ukrainians, including Tetiana Chornovol, saw him as a figure of entertainment. His success reflects the fact that, unlike some other politicians in Ukraine, Zelensky is willing to be honest and speak out, even if it puts him at risk.

He took theater out of Ukrainian electoral politics, rejecting patronage networks that can sway votes. And during the Russian invasion, his eloquence and confidence won him international support.

The challenge now is whether he can deliver on his promises. His team is unclear, and he has given little indication of who will fill key positions, such as finance minister. His close ties to self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy have raised concerns about his independence. And he has not yet delivered on his promise to fight corruption, which is rife in the country. But his supporters believe he will prevail. He has not lost the people’s faith, and they believe he can be trusted to lead.

How did Zelensky win the election?

The surprise victory of Zelensky reflects Ukrainian frustration with decades of failed political leadership. He campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, lambasting President Poroshenko over crooked deals with rich oligarchs and the raging Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Zelensky has a clean slate and no clear party structure. Critics compare him to Italy’s populist comedian Beppe Grillo, who rose to power with a similar anti-establishment message and lack of party affiliation.

While many voters were drawn to Zelensky’s anti-corruption stance, they also want dramatic economic change. They fear the country is in a downward spiral after years of bad policy and endemic corruption. They want to see their children grow up with better lives. And, they may believe that Zelensky will bring that change. Zelensky reportedly this week will name his key team, which could offer clues to his direction. That includes naming the foreign and defense ministers and head of the state security service, according to Reuters.

What is the outcome of the election?

In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Zelenskyy talks about his family’s losses in the Holocaust, a painful reminder that Ukraine is still fighting to overcome the vestiges of Soviet dictatorship.

It’s unclear how well Zelensky, whose party, Servant of the People (Sluha narodu or SN), won Sunday’s elections, will govern. He has little prior political experience and didn’t offer a detailed blueprint for his presidency during the campaign.

He also faces a constitutional deadline for dissolving parliament by the end of May. Even if his presidential win translated into a quick victory for his parliamentary party, that would only give him a six-month mandate. Without a full parliament, he can’t form a government. Despite these challenges, he has made clear that he plans to pursue the fight against corruption and defend Ukraine from Russia. He has also promised to make Ukraine a great democracy. That seems like a tall order for a man with no political experience to fulfill.

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