The following is a transcript of an interview with Sean Penn, “Superpower” co-director, that aired on “Face the Nation” on Sept. 17, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’re now joined by actor and director Sean Penn, who is the co-director of a new documentary about the war in Ukraine called Superpower. Good morning. Good to have you here.
SEAN PENN: Good to be here.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So who do you want to see this documentary? What is your intent?
SEAN PENN: The American people is the primary intent. The American conservatives, the American liberals, everything between, Republicans, Democrats. This is not a movie that’s made for a party. It’s not a movie that’s made for anything but to sort of share this experience of Ukrainian courage and unity, in parallel with the fragility of that in our country. And-and I hope that it can be sort of a bridge internally, and that that bridge can lead to a more informed and robust support for Ukraine in their fight.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You say experience, and it was experienced for you because you went into Ukraine. In fact, a large part of this documentary takes place right around the timing of the invasion, which is just incredible. This was at a time when the United States was loudly warning, a full scale invasion was about to happen. Why did you go despite those warnings?
SEAN PENN: This is- this film started as a sort of light hearted tale of a comedic actor who had become president. A lot of attention had come Ukraine’s way, his way after a controversial phone call with our former president. And-and there seemed to be this, you know, generating interest. And by sort of a quirk of fate, a friend of mine had run into someone who had connection to Zelenskyy. And he- he said, What do you think, should we consider doing a documentary about this? Ukrainian president, and it got increasingly interesting, and we started to do that, and then COVID happened. So this is long before the Russian build up. In context, I know a lot of people forget that the Border War had continued in the East since the annexation of Crimea in 2014–
MARGARET BRENNAN: 2014.
SEAN PENN: But largely, this was a country at peace of building democracy and, and one that had become a sort of a new young Ukraine and young president, you know, moving progressively past the Kleptocracy, so that all of those things–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well trying.
SEAN PENN: Yeah. Well, but but getting some legislations passed that are more significant than maybe we paid attention to, and that it’s a convenient out to not have involved them with NATO. That’s another story.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
SEAN PENN: And then, because of COVID, my first meeting with President Zelenskyy was over Zoom. And that delayed our being able to start. He was intrigued with the idea. It was important to me not to, and I told him that I didn’t want him to commit to it, and then potentially just give us a formal presentation, you know, of who he was, when we were there. I wanted him to meet me in person when the time would come without a camera, and then see if that felt like we could have an unguarded communication. And and that didn’t happen until February 23 2022.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The day before the full scale invasion began.
SEAN PENN: So we agreed that we would start shooting on the 24th.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Intentionally?
SEAN PENN: Yes. And then we went back to our hotel and tried to lay our heads down, and then the rocket started coming in and it was a country at war. And he, this really warm, I have described it a lot, Intelligent presence that that of this young president was overnight a wartime president. And I was surprised. But we got the call from the president’s office, the morning of saying he would follow through with our plan to start shooting on that day.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s interesting how the Zelenskyy government has used communication and media and information as part of their strategy. Some of his top advisors came from the entertainment industry.
SEAN PENN: Yep.
MARGARET BRENNAN: How, how much of an insight did you get into that into their strategic planning?
SEAN PENN: Well, I would say I-I probably have a far less cynical perspective on this, so much so that I have a little bit of an allergy to the word strategy with this. I think that before he was an actor, and the reason he was a talented actor, was somebody who had a generous perception of the world that he wanted to share and a hunger of expression and gave him many ways to express it. That becomes a career path, not necessarily by intrigue, but simply because that’s the outlet for that, that you can make a living at. It’s a great way to share with people. That then leads to the communicator that is the president and then with his leadership, and of course, colleagues, like you mentioned, brought into the administration, you’ve got kind of a brave new world of great communicators, who understand the new technologies and routes to inform and to share the story of what’s happening in their country.
MARGARET BRENNAN: In one of the clips, Andre Yermak, one of the top advisors to President Zelenskyy says to you, you know, the US position should be stronger if the United States and Joe Biden doesn’t do something now, essentially, he says America’s over. That followed with a pretty robust financial investment by the United States, more than $50 billion, pledges of weapons. But from what I’ve heard, you say, you think the United States isn’t doing enough?
SEAN PENN: It is my absolute feeling that the caution with which the United States has pledged support, which seemed, in my reading of-of the February 2022 was a, like a lean on in the fear of nuclear conflict, something I think all of us should look very carefully at and understand that, of course, is possible. And that’s to be concerning. The likelihood is extremely low. And as one of our witnesses in the film says, you know, are we going to let a gangster with nuclear weapons dictate the way we live? So, I think that- and the Ukrainians won’t let him do that. So we have to look at the aligned aspiration of what we are as people and as countries and as governments, and see that they are the embodiment of what we aspire to. And we should have had F-16s, Air Defense, long range weapons, robustly in position long since by now and the smoke screens that were used about maintenance crews and all that, do they have enough airfields. Those were smokescreens. That’s a provable fact, the–
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean by that, a provable fact? Military leaders have backed up President Biden’s claims that it’s not appropriate or needs to be peaceful?
SEAN PENN: Some have. And I can’t say whether President Biden was misled on this or not. But I’ve talked to the guys that do it. We know that through the International Legion, for example, there are all kinds of former military who are, have the skill sets both from the ground support upward with all of these things. Who would have even volunteered to supplement while Ukrainians were being trained? We know that the Ukrainians would have been able to train in record time nobody was associating these conversations with the adaptability the way that one might say, Okay, you have X amount of disciplines to become a Top Gun pilot, but you can- you can- when that may take this many months or a year, etc, from the current skill sets they have. That’s true, but what if you train them for one of those skill sets, and that squadron does just that for now, and other squadrons doing this? You can- that can go very fast. So these- these- these were very frustrating things to hear repeated regurgitated over and over again. I – the President Zelenskyy himself, and he- he’s genuine, and- is extremely grateful to the United States and the European countries that have contributed.
MARGARET BRENNAN: He’s had some tense moments during some of these phone calls–
SEAN PENN: And he’s very grateful. But I think he also recognizes that- and he says it in the film, that the American people, we don’t really know what’s going on there unless we’re in the war fighting it. And he says very clearly which all the Ukrainian soldiers I talked to have said, and Ukrainians in general, they don’t want Americans in the fight. They just want the support so that they can use these weapons to defend their freedom, and to save lives and infrastructure.
MARGARET BRENNAN: In the documentary you spoke with a Ukrainian fighter pilot named Juice, who I understand was killed later in a training incident. Was your personal connection to him and his- the case he made to you part of why you are pushing this point on F-16s so strongly?
SEAN PENN: I was pushing it when I was with Juice and he was alive. He dreamt of flying F-16s. His mother, I just saw last week, and she described him as not a military man. It’s true. And I think if you see that in the movie, I mean, if one considers the cookie cutter idea of a military man, I think that he was a man who was born into a time where he had to do this extreme thing, and he did it with poise, and, and skill and focus, and compassion. There’s a presence in him that really speaks largely about U- So many Ukrainians that I’ve met. And so he had come to Washington to lobby for the F-16s and also was buying helmets for his helicopter pilot friends on eBay here to bring back. So it was like that. And then I suppose now, what was it July that it was announced that there would now be an F-16 program, those resources–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Eventually.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, over a long period of time. And what, a couple of weeks later, I got the message that he’d been killed. I think not only would Juice be alive today if we had been as bold as we like to claim to be historically as a country with our principals, with our Republicans and our Democrats, with our leadership, the citizenry too, while we’re putting all those Ukrainian flags out, we should have been as- demand decisiveness in this case, because at some point, caution becomes cowardice. And I think that we still have a chance because the Ukrainians, what Andre Yermak said, like you quoted him as saying, they’re not there where America is no longer,– that whatever one wants to think of it as the greatest this and that– but there’s still an opportunity for us to do the right thing. And whether it’s Republican or Democrat, whether it’s President Biden’s administration or not, personally, I think that there’s not only a principal win in-in escalating this escalating our help of that might mean, I think there’s a political win, going across the country, especially talking to young people, one of the things that’s missing, and seems to be attached, even to the mental health crisis is a lack of clear minded, proactive will, to lead. And for us to know which direction we want to go as a country. And I think that this is not an ambiguous war. It’s a shame that it’s a war. But it’s also an opportunity for us to improve.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 58% of Americans polled by CBS disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling the situation with Russia and Ukraine, and I’m getting the sense from you, you’re disappointed too.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, I respect President Biden very much. There have been a couple of things that I think have been disasters up to this point. I think this is one and I say this, of course, with one caveat. There’s an- should be an implicit understanding between private citizens and leaders of government that, you know, there are things that I don’t know about things that should be- need to remain classified. So every day, even when I was with Juice, I was privately thinking, yes, it’s our job to fight this fight. But privately I was thinking, but maybe they are doing it behind closed doors, and tomorrow, we’re going to wake up to that squadron. Enough time has passed. I think it’s been to date a tragic mistake, and I hope and encourage this president that he deserves the legacy of doing this properly. He’s been a great public servant. Clearly a deeply decent man, and- and has gotten a lot of great things done despite this division. But there’s nothing more important than this right now.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And specifically, air superiority is key to it for you. Polling also shows big majorities of Americans continue to support economic sanctions on Russia. 61% of Republicans, though, say the US should not send weapons to Ukraine, 50% Say the US should not send aid and supplies to Ukraine. That is a big shift from where the Republican Party was in terms of in the past being very strong on Russia. But some of it in terms of the rhetoric reflects this sense that America needs to fix itself at home. How do you respond to- to that thinking?
SEAN PENN: I think there’s two parts to it. Right? You have the part of that that has nothing to do with what we know of as Republicanism or policy, that there’s the- this populist gap issue that’s become identity politics and so on. And- and thee kind of extreme the extreme- there are extremes on both sides, of course, but this extreme on the right. I don’t think it’s concerns itself with information. People that number you quoted, did you say 56%?
MARGARET BRENNAN: 61% don’t want to send weapons, 50% said don’t send aid or supply.
SEAN PENN: So, housed within that 61%, of course, some identify the way- I would identify the way that I just said. But I believe that most, given the simple truth of it, not the smokescreens in confusion, a context of understanding what the implications are for us, not only Sean Penn talking about the principle, but practically, economically long term. I think there’s more than a compelling argument that would change those minds. And I understand why they’re confused. I mean, I’m hoping in its little way that- that this film can help context. I would be confused if I hadn’t had the opportunity to do this.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah. Better communication of the “why” and the justification for the billions of dollars of American spending.
SEAN PENN: If the current leadership would just do one thing now, it would be the President saying to his cabinet, “we are not spinning the story on Ukraine anymore.” So, if it’s about what are they capable of, we’re gonna let our commanders in Fresno at the Cal National Guard that’s been doing joint military exercises with them for 30 years tell us what that capability is. And we’re going to say it unfiltered to the American people.
MARGARET BRENNAN: One of the people you interviewed, the central bank head, said to you, World War III has begun and Ukraine is the frontline. So, people will look at that and say that that’s just hyperbole. You seem to really believe that, that there is more at stake in this conflict than just the territory in eastern Europe?
SEAN PENN: Yeah, I don’t know that I would use the same words. He, by the way, is one of the more impressive people I’ve ever met. And I, you know, I don’t disagree with it. It depends on how long it means that- I think that what’s clear is that we’re going to have inevitable confrontations with the existence of nuclear weapons for a long time. We made a sacred oath in the Budapest Memorandum to Ukraine.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Back in the 90s.
SEAN PENN: They had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because of being part of the Soviet Union, right. And they gave that up.
SEAN PENN: They gave it up in exchange for the United States assurance that even a threat against their sovereignty would be met with unified military support. Russia also agreed to this. And- I don’t think there’s anything to believe but that if we don’t take it on bravely and boldly now, just with a full understanding of the worst case scenario being horrible, that that’s our real world, and either we’re going to deal with it, or our children are going to deal with it. And I think this is morally, politically, economically- for sure I am with what Andre Yermak said about the end of the aspiration, that’s America, if we don’t.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The aspiration: what we say we are and we stand for.
SEAN PENN: That’s right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You end the documentary talking about this feeling of unity you had when you were in Ukraine, and you compare it to what you see here at home, and you actually end on the images of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the congresswoman, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and you say we’re going backwards. Why do you think they symbolize that?
SEAN PENN: I think that we’ve come to a point where we as- as the voters, we as the citizens have to look at our politicians and say, look, you’re very smart. We agree with your policy. Why would you want to call it socialist? Why- why would you want to put up a middle finger to people who have a reaction to that? You’re a leader. Just get the policy across. Just go to them and say, did your- are you glad your grandmother was able to call 911 when somebody was breaking into her home .And what credit card did she? Oh, she didn’t use a credit card? Well, that’s what you’re calling socialism. I’m not interested in these people self celebrating or grandstanding. Jerks like me do enough of that. Leaders can’t do that anymore. And so, on the right, on the left, we have to demand that people actually are accountable for- accountable and ourselves for the division that we have and break it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you saying there that there’s this- because I’ve heard others say this, lawmakers are trying to be celebrities, lawmakers are trying to get attention and not focused enough on solving real world issues? It sounds kind of like what you’re driving at there.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, and you know, there’ll be the arguments. We’re in those conversations all the time that this is a function of our electoral system that can- and campaign financing. And that’s all true, and, you know, people keep strategizing. By that means they’re going to be you know, looking back at the dust. The- the last bee will die and we’ll count down for days.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I think we’ll leave it there.
SEAN PENN: I wanted to share one thing with you though.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Go ahead.
SEAN PENN: Is that- and it’s rare thing that the- the powers that be around the stakeholders in the Superpower movie from Paramount+, Vice, Fifth Season, all of those who might, who have already made investment in us and God knows their businesses have agreed and supported same day distribution on full access on all the major networks in Ukraine with Ukrainian subtitles. Day and date with the streaming date here on the 18th. So, I sort of wanted to thank them.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, people in Ukraine on Monday will be able to watch this too.
SEAN PENN: Monday it is, yeah.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you, Sean Penn, for sharing your work with us and Superpower debuts on Paramount+ on Monday, as you heard. We’ll be right back.