TV Review: Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin
PBS report on Ukrainian leader lacks facts, context and analysis
As curious as most Westerners or Americans about the media’s newest darling, I recently tuned into a PBS broadcast which is aimed to exploit this year’s Russian invasion of another country. I watched the 25-minute Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin with an active mind and ready to learn.
Instead, the PBS program fawns over the embattled Ukrainian leader with a stream of scholars and intellectuals apparently and mostly awed by Volodymyr Zelensky, whom I did learn was born in the winter of 1978. I would’ve liked to hear more than a few sentences from scholars such as Russian history professor Robert Service, who also participated. But the filmmakers are content to let viewers know that Zelensky has “a million followers on Instagram.” That line captures its depth.
Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin is more like a trailer or teaser for a celebrity infomercial than a serious biographical sketch. Produced and directed for PBS by Daniel Smith and Laura Stevens, one does learn (in case you don’t already know) that Zelensky was part of a comedy troupe, that he won a Ukrainian TV talent contest and played the lead in a television show about a history professor who becomes president and that he ran his presidential campaign almost exclusively on social media.
What does Zelensky think? What is his political philosophy? Why did he fail to anticipate—and sufficiently prepare for—a military invasion of his own country? On what grounds does he argue that the West should risk going to war with a nuclear power for a state that’s not part of the West’s alliance?
Blank out—this show amounts at best to a news recap; a fast profile that probably would’ve run in a couple of installments on lower-rated nightly news 50 years ago. There’s not a word—not a single sentence—about Zelensky’s political philosophy, education, intellectual progression, if any, let alone a fundamental philosophy. There’s hardly any accounting for his policies in practice except for a roundup of his anti-corruption, anti-oligarchy platform and a passing reference to the anti-oligarchy law which yields the program’s only critical statements about Zelensky.
The audience does come away with an impression of Ukraine’s leader as constantly wearing t-shirts and speaking in “short, sharp video presentations and snappy lines.” Zelensky, shown with President Trump, remains a slippery figure. Indeed, midway through the 25-minute program, host and narrator Matt Frei asks: “But who is this man?” Never mind that the title, topic and theme purport to address and answer this question. Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin doesn’t even begin to inform the audience as promised.
“But we do know that Volodymyr Zelensky and his people are determined and in it for the long-haul,” someone claims without evidence, cause or reference to any political principle. “[The Ukrainian people] just feel like they’re watching season 10 of Servant to the People — he just changed his suit into a T-shirt.” Considering that this young man’s cause—prevailing upon the West to essentially go to war with Russia over defending his country, Ukraine—could lead to a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons-based World War 3, I have to admit I expected a more substantial news program from PBS. The final words, however, may best sum up why Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin was produced: “Glory to Ukraine!”
Thanks for this review, Scott. The silence about the underpinnings of Zelenskyy's politics is deafening.