‘Superpower’ Director Sean Penn Blasts Putin: “A Gangster With Nuclear Weapons”

Superpower director Sean Penn isn’t mincing words in his denunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two-time Oscar-winning actor, whose new documentary about the war in Ukraine is now streaming on Paramount+, calls the Kremlin leader “a gangster with nuclear weapons,” in an interview with Deadline. His comments came during a taping at Deadline studios in Los Angeles for an upcoming episode of Doc Talk, a new podcast that launched earlier this month.

At another point in the interview, Penn described Putin as “this monster that’s running the show” in Russia now. In contrast, he lauds Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s character responding to the existential threat to his country from Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

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“The pursuit of patriotism, it is the courage of moral clarity where there’s chaos, it is what Zelenskyy brings to the party,” he insisted. “It is what we saw when he spoke at the UN [Tuesday].”

Penn added, in reference to Zelenskyy’s address, “When one watches that — we all have pretty good lie detectors, whether we’re on the right or left — if we really just take a breath, there’s nothing not genuine about this guy’s speech. And in English, his third language… It’s the highest functioning human leadership and courage that we could all aspire to having, and certainly to maintain committed support of.”

For his documentary Superpower, which Penn co-directed with Aaron Kaufman, he traveled seven times to Ukraine. The impetus for the film came about long before anyone knew Putin was mulling a full-scale invasion of his peaceful neighbor; Penn says his original idea was to find out more about how Zelenskyy, who had been a popular comedian in Ukraine (and Russia, for that matter), had made the transition to leader of his country. He said he looked at the project as a welcome respite from some of his other journalistic and humanitarian work in rough circumstances.

“I thought after the kind of throwing yourself around the world in harsh places, this would be kind of a lighthearted tale,” Penn recalled with a touch of irony. “Maybe that’s what I was in the mood to do at that time, and it wouldn’t be a heavy lift because I had carpentry projects I wanted to finish around my house. I didn’t want to spend all my time doing it. And then it turned into something, on its own, much more.”

As seen in Superpower, Penn met face to face with Zelenskyy, without cameras present, on February 23, 2022. They set the next day for an on-camera interview – the very day, it turned out, when Russia launched its invasion. As parts of Kyiv burst into flames and Russian commandoes seized the airport in the capital, Penn and his team waited for word from Zelenskyy’s office. Hours into the attack on his country, the Ukrainian president kept his promise to meet with Penn. Zelenskyy thanked the actor-filmmaker for helping support the Ukrainian cause through his documentary project.

Penn recalled the feeling of winding his way through the presidential palace to the location of his meeting with Pres. Zelenskyy. The day before he had seen many young soldiers in those same corridors, but in an instant their reality had dramatically changed.

“All of these young faces that we would’ve seen in a kind of soft posture the day before are now likely going to face imminent battle for their lives,” Penn said. “And so walking through there — all the lights are very low, everything is shut down — and seeing these faces, these hundreds of soldiers in the hallways, young faces pondering how the world just changed and that they’re at the front of it… I was terrified for them. The courage was so extreme.”

Following his address at the UN this week, Pres. Zelenskyy traveled to Washington where he met with Pres. Biden, who promised continued aid to Ukraine. Biden also reportedly offered to supply the embattled country with a limited number of Army Tactical Missile Systems, which according to NBC News, “would give Kyiv the ability to strike targets from as far away as about 180 miles, hitting supply lines, railways, and command and control locations behind the Russian front lines.”

On Friday, Pres. Zelenskyy headed north to Canada, where he addressed the Canadian parliament. “Moscow must lose once and for all,” he told members of parliament. “And it will lose.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy denied Zelenskyy an opportunity to address a joint session of Congress.

“Look, I think it’s very clear that conservatives in America have dwindling support for what I think is a sacred obligation of the United States for so many reasons,” Penn observed. Among those sacred obligations, he noted the U.S. signing of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, an agreement under which newly independent Ukraine gave up its nuclear stockpile in exchange for security assurances from the U.S. (as well as a guarantee from Moscow that it wouldn’t attack Ukraine unless threatened by its neighbor).

Penn again called on the Biden administration to provide decisive support and advanced weapons systems to Ukraine in its fight for survival.

“I think that [Pres. Biden] deserves the legacy that he will get by committing these assets in an absolutely robust way now,” Penn said. “And I do think it’ll actually be politically advantageous to any candidate that might do that, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, because this is an unambiguous war.”

The episode of Deadline’s Doc Talk podcast featuring the full interview with Sean Penn will premiere on October 3.

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