‘Citizen Penn’ Review: A Portrait of Sean Penn as an Advocate

Sean Penn’s work in Haiti after its devastating 2011 earthquake continues to this day. And this new documentary “Citizen Penn” is a reve...


Sean Penn’s work in Haiti after its devastating 2011 earthquake continues to this day. And this new documentary “Citizen Penn” is a revealing, engaging chronicle of the actor’s activism.

One of the opening scenes of the movie, directed by Don Hardy, is a mini-montage of its subject behaving like the tabloid fodder he was during the 1980s and 1990s. It culminates with a clip from Penn’s acceptance speech at the 2009 Academy Awards ceremony, where he took the best actor prize for his work in “Milk.” He tells the audience, “I know how hard I make it to appreciate me.”

Hardy’s subsequent exercise in Penn-appreciation, focusing on Penn’s extraordinary and still-continuing philanthropic activism in Haiti, accepts that challenge, and overcomes it.

Speaking with Hardy for this film, Penn reveals, among other things, his acute awareness of the interview as a mode of performance. Dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, an American Spirit cigarette almost ever-present in his hand, the often combative actor adopts a friendly mien and seems frank, engaging and unguarded. He speaks of wasting some time on nightlife in the aftermath of a divorce, and being galvanized by television coverage of the 2011 earthquake.

After asking a physician friend down there what was needed, and being told “350,000 vials of morphine,” Penn got them. From the divisive president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, as it happens. After assembling a volunteer force, Penn went to Haiti and was increasingly astonished at how devastated it was.

The actor and filmmaker is the “star” here, yes, but Hardy also profiles Haitians and some expatriates in the medical field who were moved to go back to the country. Their commitment and insight fills out the chronicle. These days, the island country is increasingly hurricane battered. And Penn remains a fierce, and appreciated, advocate for its cause.

Citizen Penn
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Watch on Discovery+.

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