Moving Pictures
Jul 20, 2023, 06:27AM

Somebody's Thinking of the Children

There's nothing particularly special about Sound of Freedom itself.

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The summer's biggest culture war battle is over a movie that amounts to little more than an overlong episode of Criminal Minds. That film is Sound of Freedom, from the Christian indie studio Angel Studios. It's a story about a series of daring rescues of sex-trafficked children by Tim Ballard (The Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel), a government agent-turned-freelance-trafficking-fighter-turned-MAGA celebrity. Sex trafficking is a horror, and I don’t think anyone denies that.

There's nothing particularly special about Sound of Freedom itself. It's merely a slightly more complex and faith-based riff on the usual network law enforcement procedurals. Criminal Minds ran for 16 seasons on CBS, and the bulk of its episodes, like Sound of Freedom, ended with the heroes rescuing an endangered child from some pervert, usually at the last possible second.

Ballard starts the film as a federal Homeland Security agent, presumably in a sex crimes division, in a role that allows him to regularly bust pedophiles and child pornographers, but rarely lets him rescue children. That's because most such children are in foreign countries, outside of his jurisdiction. Hoping to rescue a young girl who was kidnapped from Honduras and transported to Colombia, Ballard must resign his government job and assemble a rogue team, in order to set up a "sex hotel" that will entrap the traffickers. This caper-like sequence is the best part of the film by far, featuring a fantastic performance by Bill Camp as an American fixer in South America. Much less impressive is the third act, Ballard's one-man raid into a guerrilla-held jungle in Colombia, which is photographed indifferently, and mostly in incomprehensible darkness.

Meanwhile, Mira Sorvino appears in a wife role that’s tiny and thankless. Her presence does little but remind us that Ballard’s missions left her alone, for weeks at a time, with their six kids. Sound of Freedom isn’t, contrary to some media insinuations, a full-on embrace of the QAnon/Pizzagate mythology. We don’t see any elites, whether Democratic officials or Hollywood figures, depicted as head honchos of any type of trafficking conspiracy. But Caviezel has made clear in numerous interviews that he's a full Q believer, including the Adrenochrome nonsense, and there's little doubt the film is aimed towards those who buy into that.

That said, the filmmakers of Sound of Freedom are up to unsavory things on several fronts. There's little truth to anything here. Ballard’s someone who, a wide body of reporting has determined, is likely full of shit, having exaggerated numerous aspects of his past rescues, and even this movie is a fictionalized version of Ballard’s own tall tales. The Colombian jungle adventure, in particular, is made up, including the part where Ballard kills a guy. (Ballard, for so-far unreported reasons, stepped down from his group, Operation Underground Railroad, last week.)

Worse than that, this film is more about the burnishing of Tim Ballard than the kids who were rescued. The film also seems under the very mistaken impression that once kids are rescued from human traffickers, they'll all going to be a-okay. Activists who work in the real world of anti-sex trafficking are outspoken that freelance commando raids of the Ballard variety aren’t the way to go.

There's also plenty of old-fashioned hokum. There’s a scene in Sound of Freedom in which children are rescued and they’re shown singing, and a character says, “Do you know what that sound is?” And then, followed by a long pause, he says the title of the movie. Sound of Freedom is much less important as a film than as a multimedia culture war cudgel. Its long and troubled production history even included Disney—known to every Q fan as a key driver of global sex trafficking—choosing not to release the film after the Fox merger. It's resulted in the film emerging as a box office hit, due in part to its scheme of letting moviegoers use a QR code to buy tickets in bulk for others.

We've seen TikTok-bred conspiracy theories about AMC movie theaters screwing with the air conditioning at showings of the film, which Angel Studios had to debunk (and was later rebutted by an almost equally weird Internet cult, the AMC meme stock people). Donald Trump’s scheduled to show the film at Bedminster this week.

And as usual, vitriol is directed at detractors. Critics weren’t offered a screening or any contact whatsoever, at which point the film’s fans turned around and accused them of “ignoring” or “boycotting” it. But critics who’ve reviewed the film, mixed-to-negatively, have found themselves accused of being accessories to trafficking itself. It’s as if this movie is now synonymous with the anti-trafficking cause itself, and anyone who deviates from that is objectively in favor of trafficking. It's a right-wing reprise of the time that supporters of the movie Don't Look Up equated their movie with the anti-climate change cause itself, and called any detractors of the film "part of the problem."

I couldn't imagine even the smuggest of the smug Hollywood liberals of today going so far as to appear in a mid-credits "special message" in which they compare their movie to Uncle Tom's Cabin, as Jim Caviezel does here. Sound of Freedom is an unlikely box office success story. But that doesn’t make it good.


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