Citizen Penn review – Hollywood star’s vanity project lifts Haiti

This documentary about Sean Penn’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti may be self-congratulatory, but the actor has had an undeniable impact

Actor, director, screenwriter and now novelist Sean Penn has had some mixed notices for his non-showbiz activities and his dramatic interventions in various international situations – including his defiant declaration of faith in the late Hugo Chávez and his successor as Venezuelan president, the now-notorious Nicolás Maduro. And the naysayers and the eye-rollers may not be entirely mollified by this documentary about Sean Penn’s charity work in Haiti, which does come across in some ways as a 93-minute self-administered high-five.

It begins with a carefully curated montage of TV news footage tacitly admitting what a paparazzo-punching brat he once was – but there is no clip of his puppet appearance in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comedy Team America: World Police as an archetypal whiny liberal. Well, Sean Penn is entitled to praise. In 2010, he responded to the news about the Haiti earthquake by mobilising contacts already amassed during his experience helping out during Hurricane Katrina, and he got on to Chávez, and asked him to supply hundreds of thousands of vials of Venezuelan morphine for Haiti’s field hospitals. (Penn had been out to Venezuela to meet Chávez the year before in the sceptical company of Christopher Hitchens, who had called him an “oil-rich clown”.)

Penn then buccaneeringly headed out to Haiti and virtually commanded his own emergency relief programme, with the aid of the US military and with donations that he was able to secure through self-publicising TV interviews with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The resulting aid body continued to grow over the next decade, with the aid of Penn’s Geldofian annual fundraising dinners, inevitably featuring concerts by U2; it evolved into a new organisation that trains emergency first-responders in the US and the Caribbean, and also helped with America’s Covid vaccination rollout, a new twist which the movie was able to edit into the closing credits.

What the film shows – perhaps not entirely intentionally – is that maybe you need someone vain enough to think he is destined to make a difference, and cunning enough to see how the vanity-economy of movie celebrity can generate media attention and cash. And Penn’s involvement has been a lasting thing. Perhaps the film could have benefited from a more analytical discussion of Haiti’s larger historical context, but it’s a worthwhile record.

• Citizen Penn is released on 6 May on Discovery+.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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