Sean Penn gets choked up remembering his face-to-face meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as war erupted ... and as Russia's invasion intensifies, he's commending Zelensky's bravery.
Speaking out for the first time since leaving war-torn Ukraine, Penn told CNN's Anderson Cooper he couldn't help but praise Zelensky for all he's doing to protect his people. He said, "I don't know if he knew that he was born for this, but it was clear I was in the presence of something ... that was new to the modern world in terms of courage and dignity and love that comes out of that man."
Penn says he met Ukraine's president before the invasion, and then again on the day it started -- amid the chaos and uncertainty, he says Zelensky showed nothing but courage ... which Penn says is also evident in all Ukrainians.
Irpin bridge amid civilian evacuation fired at by Russia.
Ukrainian Territorial Defense soldier moments before the blast says “everything is bad, yesterday we evacuated kids, bodies of civilians.”pic.twitter.com/KwxizG6N1g
He described his escape to the Polish border as pure terror -- seeing thousands of families fleeing for their lives while the men were forced to stay behind and defend their country ... as the Russian shelling began.
Penn believes after seeing the nightmare first-hand, negative effects could ripple out to the rest of the world ... adding America could "plummet off a cliff" if it doesn't choose to support Ukraine.