CITIZEN PENN (2021, doc)

Greetings again from the darkness. As a two-time Oscar winner for MILK (2008) and MYSTIC RIVER (2003), Sean Penn is unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation. He’s also an accomplished writer, director, and producer, and has been in two high-profile marriages/divorces: once to pop superstar Madonna, and then to actress Robin Wright. Over the years, Penn has been labeled Hollywood’s bad boy, anti-American, an opportunist, an activist, a philanthropist, and a humanitarian. Documentarian Don Hardy sets the stage by acknowledging all of that, and then focuses on Sean Penn’s work with his relief organization J/P HRO (now CORE).

Director Hardy interviews Penn in what appears to be his living room. Penn rarely stops smoking and does an admirable job of taking us through how he became more than just a celebrity seeking a photo op. It was 2010 when Haiti was hit by a massive 7.0 earthquake that killed 250,000, injured 300,000, and displaced 1.5 million from their home. Penn’s personal life was at a fork, and he viewed this as a way to do the right thing and help those in need. So he made some calls and along with other volunteers, headed to Haiti. Penn describes this as “building the airplane after takeoff”. Stunned by the devastation, Penn used his connections to garner medical supplies and other items.

Despite facing cynicism from many, Penn mostly avoided cameras, except when he granted interviews to Anderson Cooper on CNN in hopes of raising awareness and funds for relief efforts. Penn spent several months in Haiti and his team evolved from emergency relief (medical support, food, clean water) to temporary housing, to the removal of tons of debris and rubble, and finally to new development. One of the camps that housed 60,000 people began as a tent city and is today a new city of its own.

Director Hardy weaves in some terrific video footage that corresponds to Penn’s recollections, and there are especially tension-filled moments involving diphtheria, cholera, and an emergency birth. To Penn’s credit, he doesn’t harp on the political unrest within Haiti, and spends his time and energy on helping the citizens and his JP/HRO team as best he can. We also see clips of the organization’s annual gala and witness Penn’s growing frustration at the number of wealthy individuals who partake in the food, party, and music, yet don’t crack open a checkbook. He shows gratitude to those who are generous, but can’t hide his distaste for the others – proving that his passion goes much deeper than good PR.

Penn recruited Ann Lee from her work at the U.N. to head the newly named CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and the relief work from this organization has carried on through Hurricane Matthew in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 Pandemic, as they distributed tests to underserved areas. You may be the kind that volunteers for everything. Or you may be the kind that critiques others while lounging on your sofa. But even if your political views don’t align with Penn’s, the film will surely have you respecting his sacrifices for those in needs. His are real actions … nothing for “show”.

Premiering on Discovery+ on May 6, 2021


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