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Can Sean Penn prove his worth as a humanitarian hero?

There are two Sean Penns, and we each decide which one’s real based on our own political leanings and overall cynicism. There’s the attention-hogging Penn, a self-important blowhard hypocrite leveraging his celebrity to affect the appearance of a selfless do-gooder while enjoying a life of fabulous luxury on his own time. And there’s the activist Penn, a workhorse putting in the effort to separate himself from the A-listers merely posturing as Mother-Teresas-in-training, who talks a big game about changing the world but won’t hesitate to put his money where his occasionally foot-shaped mouth is. In the new documentary Citizen Penn, director Don Hardy isn’t particularly interested in promoting one image of the actor-director over the other. He’d rather let the footage of devastation and recuperation in Haiti do that for him. Though Penn may have provided the household name required to get a low-budget nonfiction project such as this one off the ground, the man himself isn’t the subject as much as his deeds, and the legacy of public aid he’s created.

“I don’t want to put myself in a place of being a mouthpiece for Sean Penn’s PR,” Hardy tells the Guardian over the phone. “There are other people to do that. What I hope comes across in the film is honesty. He admits to some of the tough lessons he’s learned through all this, as we take a little trip through Sean Penn history going back to the early ‘80s. But if viewers can walk away thinking, ‘Eh, I still don’t like the guy, but I am impressed by the work he’s done,’ that’s enough for me.”

Hardy has been navigating the line between a cordial and professional relationship to this polarizing figure for nearly two decades. The pair met through a mutual friend in 2005, and they quickly found common ground on matters of social justice; Hardy was working on Witch Hunt, a documentary focusing on wrongful convictions, and Penn’s drama Dead Man Walking addressed that same topic. He ended up stepping in to narrate and executive produce Witch Hunt, and, as Hardy puts it, “This started my film career.” The premiere a few years later brought him some momentum, and he approached Penn again in 2010 for another project, but the star had more urgent business to attend to.

A cataclysmic earthquake had struck Haiti, claiming thousands of lives and leaving the survivors with a critically damaged infrastructure. Penn sprung into action, and Hardy was there to watch. “I saw him hurriedly set up some way for a plane to get into Haiti with supplies, watched it right in front of me,” he says. “He was on the first plane he could get. I reached out to his assistant to ask if Sean needed someone there on site to film what was going on, and she said yes. A couple weeks later, myself and a few friends were there on the ground shooting footage that could go out to news organizations and show what was going on.”

Hardy tiptoed through a minefield strewn with potential conflicts of interest by concentrating on reportage over portraiture, privileging the how over the who. With a combination of his own footage and contributions shot by affable videographer Captain Barry along with the many volunteers who passed around the camera, we see a small outfit of thirty balloon to nearly sixty. They expand outward as their numbers rise, eventually commandeering the country’s lone golf course as a camp for around sixty thousand displaced persons. All the while, Penn’s buzzing about taking calls and meeting with local liaisons and being generally hands-on, from handing out food rations to accompanying an ailing man on a nightlong scramble for medical care that ends in tragedy.

Though Penn ran the show with the Jenkins-Penn Haiti Relief Organization (now renamed Core), he recognized that his authority would have to have hard limits with Hardy. “I kept documenting it over the years, occasionally approaching Sean and asking if we could make a movie about this, and he was always very reluctant,” he says. “Certainly didn’t want it to be any kind of vanity piece. By 2018, I had another movie coming out and I thought I’d have the capacity to raise money for this film, so I sat down with Sean and he agreed to let this out into the world. And he let me have full editorial control to make the movie as I wanted to make it.”

Hardy will concede that Penn made for “an intimidating figure” when they sat down together for the seven-hour interview that provides the film with its structural backbone. “He must have smoked three packs of cigarettes, but he did allow himself to be a little more vulnerable than in his other interviews, where he tends to be more guarded,” he recalls. From that long and candid sit-down, Hardy conjures a glimpse of the transformative effects service can have on a person, rather than any penetrating inquest into the enigma that is Sean Penn. While his personal life goes unremarked upon, we can see his longstanding critical attitude of the US military evolve into a newfound esteem as he observes their effectiveness as a humanitarian force.

Sean Penn
Say what you will about Sean Penn, but his numbers have a way of speaking for themselves. Photograph: Publicity image

“Sean’s organization was working so closely with the 82nd Airborne,” Hardy explains. “You can glimpse a little of the friendship that was formed between those groups, but it took some time. The military people were very suspicious of Sean’s motives when he got there. Staying, listening, finding a way to work together – as Anderson Cooper says in the film, in those early days of Haiti, any help was good help. You saw a lot of alliances forming between unlikely partners.

“But even in the early 00s, most of the criticisms Sean had were aimed at the president and the administration that got us into the war, as opposed to the people who were fighting it themselves. When they had those meetings, I felt like there was a good sense of mutual respect between them.”

A willingness to let go of one’s ego and learn emerges as the key to creating lasting progress in Haiti. Penn was all too aware of the “white savior” reputation that Hollywood types can attract when they go to countries in need, and pre-empted it by embracing collaboration and empowerment for the existing community. “They didn’t go in with an agenda of how they were going to provide water or tents,” Hardy says. “Bigger institutions go in with notions of what’s worked elsewhere and how they can replicate that in Haiti, but Sean’s organization had a willingness to listen. ‘This is what you need? All right, we can work together to find a way to provide that.’ They worked well with the Haitian people, who are now running things on the ground day-to-day.”

Penn doesn’t seem preoccupied with coming off as the hero, reinforced in the scenes of his annual fundraising gala, in which he breaks his own cardinal rule to never bum the crowd out by adopting a tone between the hostile and the discomfiting.

The film ends with the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest challenge Core is meeting head-on. When the crisis hit Los Angeles, Penn sprung into action and mobilized his resources to accelerate testing and ultimately vaccination. Their operations led to another one of the dustups that follow Penn everywhere he goes; a handful of anonymous volunteers complained of substandard working conditions, which Penn emphatically refuted in a 2,200-word email leaked to the press.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Sean about it,” Hardy says, but it’s the same-old-same-old for a personality with headlines always at his heels. The film anticipates this latest dustup, and allows his coarser side to coexist with his commitment to giving. Say what you will about Sean Penn – really, the documentary invites us, go right ahead – but his numbers have a way of speaking for themselves.

  • Citizen Penn is now available on Discovery+

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