‘Citizen Penn’ Movie Review: Sean Penn Is Mightier Than a Sword [AFI FEST]

Sean Penn is perhaps more famous now as a political advocate than he is as an actor. Although he has won two Oscars for Mystic River and Milk, and his career spans nearly 40 years, his visit to Bagdad, New Orleans and Venezuela got him more press than any of his movies. The documentary Citizen Penn chronicles Penn’s relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. 

Citizen Penn
Sean Penn | AFI FEST

Citizen Penn begins with a montage of Penn’s greatest media hits: Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, marrying Madonna, punching a photographer. It also covers some of his controversial activism, looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and meeting Hugo Chavez. The intimacy Penn allows Don Hardy into his Haiti efforts offer a rare look at this reclusive actor. 

Sean Penn was sincere about Haiti 

Penn gives Hardy an on camera interview, something that is already rare for Penn to allow. Granted, it’s for a documentary about Penn’s own charity and his massive charitable endeavor, but it’s still rare. Penn shares that in 2010, after his divorce from Robin Wright and his kids leaving the house, he saw the Haiti earthquake on TV.

Sean Penn in Haiti
Sean Penn | Lee Celano/Getty Images

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Footage of Penn in Haiti mostly comes from the one volunteer he allowed to have a camera, and other volunteers who took personal videos. Penn took measures to keep cameras awaya so that it would not be perceived as a publicity stunt. 

‘Citizen Penn’ is on the ground in Haiti with Sean Penn

Hardy’s crew followed Penn and his team, Penn often refusing to give interviews even to update the relief efforts. There are harrowing stories of rescuing babies and raiding a CDC warehouse to confiscate medicine the Haitians needed immediately. There are still tragedies of circumstance. Despite Penn and his organization’s best efforts, they can lose people almost on a whim. 

Sean Penn carrying
Sean Penn | Lee Celano/Getty Images

‘Citizen Penn’ follows 10 years of CORE

Penn has continued to help Haiti every year since the earthquake. His organization began as J/P Haitian Relief Organization. Now it is called CORE, Community Organized Relief Effort. CORE has expanded its outreach, including coronavirus (COVID-19) relief efforts.

Sean Penn CORE
Sean Penn | Michael Kovac/Getty Images for CORE Gala

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Just because he’s working for charity doesn’t mean Penn is going to kiss celebrities’ and politicians’ butts. On the ground and on the news, Penn called out other nonprofits who didn’t help enough. Every year, he gets mad at stars who come to his annual benefit and don’t donate. 

Citizen Penn gets rather deep into funding issues. It’s inside baseball but sheds a lot of light into the complexities of where your donations actually go. If you’re interested in Sean Penn or interested in community relief efforts, Citizen Penn is an inside look at both.