September 28, 2023

Sean Penn urged the White House to take a more aggressive approach toward arming Ukraine, telling a crowd at a screening of his film Superpower that those who are influencing U.S. policy “need to get out of the pure caution business.”

“I don’t mind being foolish in saying that I deeply believe, whether Democrat or Republican, if this was issue that one of the parties chose to commit to, in arming Ukraine, that not only would it be a principal win, but it would be a political win. I think we are hungering for that kind of decisiveness,” Penn told CBS News’s Major Garrett.

“Caution has been very important, humanly and politically … But many times in emergencies restraint is the enemy of action,” Penn added. “I think that there are influential people, perhaps influential with our president, who they themselves need to be encouraged to get out of the pure caution business because it starts to translate into cowardice.”

The screening at the Motion Picture Association on Thursday, drawing attendees including Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosim Rep. Eric Swalwell and Oksana Markarova, comes as the Biden administration has requested more than $21 billion in additional defense and other aid to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to return to Washington next week amid divisions in Congress over providing the additional funds. Others in Congress, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have criticized the Biden administration for being slow in approving the transfer of weapons and other equipment to the country, including F-16 fighter jets.

Asked what the U.S. and other allies could provide to Ukraine that has not been so far, Penn said, “No more smoke and mirrors. No more talking about it being maintenance crews being incapable or lack of air strips, because they have all of those things.”

While the concern has been the U.S. fueling the conflict with nuclear-armed Russia, Penn noted that “in the international legion, there are former American and other non-active duty, the equivalent of NATO force on the ground in escalating things, who are already in the fight there, from the United States and other countries. And from the beginning, there has been a great will by those who are expert in the platform, from the ground crews to the maintenance, all of it, and pilots, ready to overlap with these guys as they train into the platform.” Penn also said that if “if we don’t have enough to keep our stockpiles up then the president should enact the Defense Production Act on behalf of the Ukrainians and supply them with everything now.”

Superpower was co-directed by Penn and Aaron Kaufman, and centers on Ukraine’s fight to repel the Russian invasion and maintain its freedom. Penn interviewed Zelensky for film, which was originally to be the story of the Ukrainian leader’s trajectory from comedian to president of the country. The project debuts on Paramount+ on September 18.

Among those also at the screening were CBS News’s Susan Zirinsky, whose See It Now Studios also was a presenter of the project; MPA chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin, CNN’s Jim Acosta, Paramount Global’s Dede Lea and Harry Dunn.

At the screening, Penn expressed concern over U.S. public opinion waning for Ukraine support, as Zelensky recently replaced his defense minister and Ukraine’s counter-offensive has dragged on.

“I do see that we should be very concerned when our media, our population, our politicians, who were so committed to the idea, so moved by all the flags of Ukraine that went up,” Penn said. “Now we are looking for an excuse. ‘Oh well, he’s having to move his minister of defense.’ That’s a natural part of leadership in such a dynamic situation, and I think it’s just looking for excuses to look the other way. You know, sometimes you have got to just change up the parent.”

But he said that the unity of the Ukrainian people against Russia is a story of supporting democracy. He said that what’s essential “understanding how much more money it is going to cost us not to fully equip them in the long and the political and moral clarity of our sacred duty to honor that which we claim to represent as our country ourselves, as being fought and sacrificed for so bravely in so many ways.”

“They’ve made their decision, and that’s what we’re got to do. Make a f–ing decision.”

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