Sean Penn says US faces ‘shame’ for not arming Ukraine faster

Sean Penn

Actor and filmmaker speaks at the premiere of his documentary about President Voldoymyr Zelenskyy

Saturday 18 February 2023 at 12:46pm GMT

Sean Penn said the US had to accept “a certain amount of shame” for not speeding up the delivery of arms to Ukraine at the premiere of his documentary on President Voldoymyr Zelenskyy and the war in Berlin.

After Friday night’s screening, the Hollywood A-lister said he believes the war in Ukraine is one the West ultimately cannot afford to see Kiev lose, an argument that backs new film Superpower.

“If you imagine what it is like if Russia wins, we’re all screwed. Just fucked to death,” said Penn. “We are already, as Americans, I can say, we have to accept a certain amount of shame for not enlarging ourselves with arms sooner.

Sean Penn lends his Oscar to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy

“I think it’s very clear whatever it will take to keep US troops out of there [Ukraine], eventually we will do. And why not now?

Penn’s film represents a serious attempt to tell the story of Ukraine and its charismatic leader, including an extraordinary interview with an obviously weary Zelenskyy in a tiny back room sometime on the first day of the Russian invasion.

“He wants us dead,” Zelenskyy said in the encounter, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and it’s not clear if the Ukrainian leader means himself and his team — or the whole country. “Sanctions are not enough,” the leader added, the first of many pleas for Western help to save his embattled nation.

A day later, Penn and his crew flee a suddenly deserted capital and drive across the country in a desperate attempt to escape, eventually abandoning a car near the Polish border, wondering if they will see Zelenskiy alive again.

By then, Penn had already been filming in the country for several weeks, in a project that morphed dramatically from an attempt to tell the story of the comic actor-turned-president into a broader exploration of Ukraine and its people as defenders the freedoms represented west is self-evident.

“We fell in love with the country, we fell in love with the people. We fell in love with that idealism, too,” said co-producer Aaron Kaufman. “After the last four or five years of American politics, we had lost touch with something they were in touch with.”

Penn largely plays the role of a curious journalist, interviewing figures from across Ukraine’s government and civil society as well as experts, soldiers, ordinary citizens and war victims to paint a picture of the national mobilization in the face of the bloody invasion.

The actor visits a bombed-out block of flats in Kiev, the owner of which ironically says to him: “Welcome to my apartment, I won’t offer you tea”, and Ukrainian soldiers in a trench near the eastern front in the Donbass as artillery fired in the distance .

But he’s also emerged as Ukraine’s advocate, choosing to argue for the country on right-wing Fox News, and has made no secret of his adulation of Zelenskyy by interviewing the president three times. Penn describes him as a man with “a palpable sense of the human need for freedom”.

It’s a tone shift from the early pre-war portion of the documentary, in which Penn finds few ordinary Ukrainians willing to express much enthusiasm for Zelenskyy while a military veteran complains about the president’s supposed lack of cojones. By the end of the film, the ex-soldier is fully converted.

Although the film was made in collaboration with Zelenskiy, Penn said the president was not otherwise involved in the film. “Apart from the time we spent with the President and his people, they didn’t see anything until five days ago,” when a special screening was held in Kiev.

A final interview with Zelenskyy takes place in a secluded garden, where the president says even his nine-year-old son has grown up dramatically. “Our children don’t talk like children,” says the chairman, also describing a country that has been forced to redefine itself on the world stage.

But it also includes a final request for Western help. “Don’t give me a wing,” says Zelenskyy, amid an argument that if Ukraine doesn’t win the war now, the US and the West could be locked in a long and expensive battle.


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