Review: Sean Penn Is Willing to Get Uncomfortable, Use His Celebrity for Good in Citizen Penn

There are probably things that actor/director Sean Penn regrets doing in his life. His affiliations with the likes of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Mexican drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”) earned him a great deal of negative press, but in his mind, those relationships served a purpose. The cause that has always been closest to his heart has been to end human suffering and rally those around him to do the same. This was never more evident than during his involvement in Haiti’s recovery after a massive earthquake decimated so much of the country in 2010.

Citizen Penn
Image courtesy of Discovery+

Directed by Don Hardy, the documentary Citizen Penn chronicles Penn’s efforts to organize and bring doctors and other aid to Haiti in the short term, while raising money and building a long-term infrastructure there so that Haitians could have the resources to rebuild. Many of those interviewed in the film talk about how certain celebrities show up for a couple days for photo ops and then leave, so their suspicion of Penn’s motivations were understandable. But he not only stayed onsite for months but continued for years after to hold massive fund-raising benefits stateside—something he very clearly hated doing but still did time and time again.

Penn and others formed an organization called J/P HRO (now CORE), which took over management duties from the U.S. military and the United Nations for the largest camp of displaced Haitians in the country. He rallied his many connections (including Chavez, who supplied hundred of thousands of vials of much-needed morphine) for immediate medical care. He was only supposed to be there for two weeks, but those plans were thrown out when he saw the scope of the destruction and suffering.

Citizen Penn dabbles a little bit into his film career as one of the industry’s most respected actors and accomplished directors, but the bulk of the movie focuses on his volunteer efforts, with Penn and others running through a series of large- and small-scale stories about their successes and failures. One of the only famous faces in films is that of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who met Penn as he was helping out survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and interviewed him many times over the years, keeping the story of Haiti’s recovery in the news cycle more than just about anyone else.

Penn is brutally honest about how stingy his richest acquaintances can be and isn’t afraid to call out individuals and organizations by name who are not pulling their weight during efforts to help others. He doesn’t believe in being polite about asking for donations when the need is immediate and the struggles are real, and his passion will likely shame all of us. The film gives a brief glimpse at other, more recent efforts CORE has been involved with, including increasing the amount of COVID-19 testing in 2020 (including a memorable stop in Chicago) and getting vaccines out to needy communities in 2021.

Penn’s demeanor in front of the camera is often awkward because he realizes that every time he speaks on behalf of a cause, he’ll be accused of playing the hero. But he’s also aware that because he’s Sean Penn, people will listen to him, so he’s willing to risk mockery if it means assisting his cause. The film features a terrific, energetic score by Linda Perry (as well as a new Bono song, co-written by Bono and Perry), and I was genuinely impressed by both the level of detail director Hardy is willing to go into regarding various relief projects in order to give us an idea of how difficult the recovery efforts in Haiti are and how Penn and his team attempt to take the most direct route to solutions rather than walk through a sea of red tape. Citizen Penn and the work shown within is inspiring and quite moving.

The film is now streaming on discovery+.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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