Citizen Penn


Some citizens are more badass about getting things done than others.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper, Cécile Accilien, Capt. Barry Frishman, Dr. Justine Crowley, Tommy Prato, Alastair Lamb, Edgar Nonce, Dr. Dominique Valentin, Laurent Lamothe, Ann Lee, Jeff Dorsey, Amani Phillips, Avery Harrell, Pamela White, Alexandra Kuykendahl. Directed by Don Hardy

 

When you think of Sean Penn, what comes to mind? Spicoli? His years as Mr. Madonna? Punching out a paparazzi? Two-time Oscar winner? Fox News whipping boy? Or dedicated activist and philanthropist who made Haitian relief a priority?

Chances are it isn’t the latter, but that is what this documentary is about, and judging on what is in the film, is what Penn himself is about. The one-time bad boy has not mellowed, but he has matured; there is a big difference. He has been associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, which is remarked about but not gone into great deal here. Mostly, it is mentioned mainly because Penn prevailed upon Chavez to provide 350,000 doses of morphine for Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake when nobody else would.

This documentary, currently airing on the Discovery Plus streaming service (click on the link below if you want to check it out although you will need to be a subscriber if you want to see it), consists largely of an interview with the actor in which he smokes incessantly, and talks plainly about his time in Haiti and of the obstacles he faced there. He also talks about the courage and compassion of the Haitian people, who refuse to see themselves as victims.

There is also a whole lot of footage of the disaster (and the ensuing hurricane that formed a one-two punch with the earthquake that nearly leveled the island). Penn talks about taking a helicopter trip in a U.S. military helicopter at one point and suddenly realizing the scope of the disaster; it is hard to see it when you are looking at individuals and small spaces. The devastation was so widespread it is amazing that Haiti has recovered at all.

It is admirable that the focus of the film shifts about halfway through, from Penn and his efforts to that of his organization, originally known as J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization) but is now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and how the volunteers there have taken over and helped Haitians take charge of their own relief.

The film makes the distinction between celebrities who support relief organizations and those who actively help on the ground where it is needed. Penn is most definitely one of the latter; he stayed in Haiti working 20-hour days long after the TV cameras had packed up and gone home. He describes a harrowing account of trying to get a young boy a life-saving medicine after he was diagnosed with diptheria. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences in the film, boiling down all the suffering to one little boy. That is how we are more able to connect with disasters; not in the sheer volume of those affected, because it is overwhelming, but in the eyes of a desperate father and a sick little boy.

Most people have probably made up their minds about Penn even before seeing this, and that may prevent you from seeing the documentary, which would be a shame because while Penn is certainly the draw, it is not just about him, and that’s just how he wants it. He uses the documentary the same way he uses his celebrity to call attention to issues he’s passionate about and raise fund to help combat them. Penn strikes me as a man who doesn’t tolerate bullshit at all; it seems to me that the world could use more people like him.

If, like me, you are motivated to donate to Penn’s organization to help with the ongoing humanitarian efforts for the island (which is now battling COVID just like the rest of us), do yourself a favor and go to the CORE website. Every dollar donated will help save lives. You can go to the website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Portrays the scope of the issues in Haiti effectively. Moves the focus away from Penn in the second half of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2010 earthquake left 230,000 dead and more than 1.5 million homeless.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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