Acclaimed US actor Sean Penn started filming his documentary about Ukraine’s war in 2021, several months before Russia’s full-scale invasion, with the intention of examining how Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian, had become president of his country.

However, from the first day of filming in Kyiv and his initial interview with Zelensky, the project took an unexpected direction which, in Penn’s own words: “a lighthearted tale of this comedic actor who had been elected president of Ukraine… became witness to a historic leader and his country’s war for freedom.”

That first interview with Ukraine’s President coincided with the launch of Russia’s massive attack and was conducted in a bunker as the first missiles hit the capital. Penn decided at that point to change the direction and tenor of the project. It was to become an examination of how and why the war started and, as time passed, the indomitable spirit of the country, its people and its leader.

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The press statement released with the trailer for the film, first shown as a “work in progress” at the Berlin Film Festival, describes the documentary as presenting “Zelensky as a leader stepping up to embrace his country’s destiny. Overnight, he became the most significant wartime leader of the modern era. This onetime actor turned president is leading his country in conflict with a nuclear superpower, becoming a crucible of history.”

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Penn, an Oscar-winning actor and longtime political activist, made seven trips to Ukraine over the following two years gathering material for the project. The film includes sequences showing Penn meeting troops and civilians on the front line.

It also features a series of interviews between Penn and Zelensky, conducted over the past two years, as the war progressed.

“What makes this film extraordinary is the immersive nature of Penn’s journey,” said Susan Zirinsky, president of See It Now Studios, which produced the film with Paramount+.

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She continued: “Being in the President’s bunker the night of the invasion to speak firsthand with Zelensky, whose country has been facing down the bloodiest invasion in Europe since World War II, Penn appreciated the extraordinarily historic weight of this moment and understood, from that moment on, the world had changed.”

In addition to interviews with the President and other Ukrainian, US and Polish politicians, Penn speaks with veterans of the fight against Russia’s 2014 invasion and the illegal annexation of Crimea. He interviews the widow whose husband died during the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” as well as musicians in Kyiv as they suffer more attacks by Putin’s forces.

Penn also visits areas destroyed during the war to meet people who lost their homes and family members. He interviews a number of soldiers, including several women training as snipers and children who are “training to defend their country.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s take on the documentary is: “Amid moments of levity, inspiration and on-the-ground storytelling, the film shows that Ukraine’s superpower lies in the strength of its leader, its people and ultimately its heart.”

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The film will premiere on Paramount+ on Monday, Sept. 18.

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