Review by Sean Boelman
Celebrities are more often in the news for the wrong reasons rather than the good ones, so it’s almost always nice to see when a high-profile figure uses their status for a good cause. Don Hardy’s Citizen Penn is the exception to that rule, as its white savior story is about as problematic as they come.
The movie follows actor/filmmaker/philanthropist Sean Penn as he, his charitable organization, and a group of aid workers from around the world set out to help in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. There’s definitely an inspiring element to this story about doing the right thing, but there are other significant problems with this film.
Audiences should already respect Penn for his work as an actor and a filmmaker, so Hardy only gives a brief introduction summarizing the highlights of his Hollywood career. Instead, much of his focus is on making Penn look humble, and to an extent he succeeds, but there are some portions in which he definitely feels self-righteous.
Much of the movie focuses on Penn wanting to operate in the shadows. Yes, it’s his financial resources and high-profile that are allowing this relief effort to succeed, but he gives a majority of the credit to the volunteers who are the ones making the bigger difference. There’s something to be said here about the world’s focus on celebrities rather than the legitimate issues, but Hardy himself falls victim to that trend.
And that isn’t even taking into consideration the ethical concerns associated with what Penn is doing. In interviews, Penn admits to having taken thousands of dollars of medical supplies his organization needed from a university hospital and working with telephone companies to trace users’ whereabouts to understand cholera outbreaks. While these actions were well-intentioned, they also aren’t things that need to be glorified.
Additionally, the way in which Hardy tells the story is problematic. Penn admits that he didn’t allow a lot of recording while on his relief mission because he wanted to keep the attention on the needs of the people he was helping, which is good. But this also results in heavy editing, with footage cut to Penn’s after-the-fact interview, these efforts playing out like an action movie.
Perhaps even more frustrating, though, is the fact that Hardy doesn’t seem to care about the Haitian people all that much. Obviously, there are restrictions with what he is able to do with the limited amount of footage available, but the discussion of this crisis is almost always in relation to what Penn did to remedy it, not the impact it had on its victims.
Citizen Penn is obviously made with the best of intentions, but they don’t pay off in a way that is constructive. If Penn wanted to keep his philanthropic efforts low-profile, he shouldn’t have let this film be made.
Citizen Penn screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.