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Caviezel movie about fight against child trafficking tells compelling tale despite manipulative, politicized marketing
Film review: ‘Sound of Freedom’ by Alejandro Monteverde, ★★★✯☆
Although the two based-on-a-true-story films are of different genres, last spring’s Jesus Revolution and thus summer’s Sound of Freedom have unexpected similarities beyond the fact they have been marketed mostly toward evangelical Christians:
On the positive side, both had surprisingly strong box office performances despite modest budgets, and both received generally positive reviews even from critics reviewing for secular media. Both also featured name actors and had production values that exceeded the reputation that faith-based films have had.
But it’s hard to look past the negative similarities: Both had epilogues that gave the impression that the films were made more to market a cause than to entertain. And both of them, when examined in light of actual history and current events taking place years after the stories they told, come across as disillusioning or even deceptive.
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Sound of Freedom tells the story of Timothy Ballard during the end of his career about a decade ago as a U.S. government agent working for the Department of Homeland Security branch dealing with child trafficking. The film portrays Ballard, played by Jim Caviezel, quitting his job with DHS but still working with Colombian authorities in a sting operation to capture child traffickers. The film’s story ends before he founded Operation Underground Railroad, an anti-trafficking organization that has become synonymous with his activism.
Sound of Freedom was filmed mostly in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2018, although its distribution langished until rights were purchased this year by Angel Studios, a Utah-based film distribution company known best for the hit TV series The Chosen about the life of Jesus and its founding of a service for filtering home-viewed movies to strip out content such as profanity and nudity.
Although the film was rated PG-13, as might be expected it’s a fairly mild PG-13: Nearly all the violence and child sexuality is suggested rather than shown, and foul language is limited to infrequent scatological terms.
Sound of Freedom has been labeled a Christian film, but that’s more a matter of marketing than content. Except that he quotes the Bible once, there’s nothing particularly Christian (or notsensational) about Caviezel’s character; Ballard in this film is merely a family man who is appalled by the sexual abuse of children.
As a film, without considering the epilogue nor the cultural environment in which it is being distributed, Sound of Freedom is solid even though it could stand to be maybe a quarter-hour shorter; its running time lists as 2 hours, 11 minutes. Its violence is incredibly muted for an action film, but I found that more of a strength than a weakness. Its main weakness is that a few events that were apparently intended to be tearjerkers fell flat, perhaps because they seemed too coincidental to be factual. (And the more dramatic but improbable events probably were fabricated for dramatic purposes, as it common in based-on-a-true-story films.)
And there were a few characters that seemed to play to stereotypes more than reality. For example, a pedophile in the opening was — get this — a middle-aged man with a mustache.
Despite those shortcomings, the film features a strong performance by Caviezel and a compelling story. As long as you realize that most child sex trafficking takes place absent dramatic kidnappings and the presence of drug cartels, I can recommend the film as a film — until the epilogue.
And the epilogue, which features Caviezel as himself urging viewers to buy tickets (there’s even a huge QR code on the screen to help with that), makes it seem that the film is all a ruse to enlist the viewer into the cause of fighting child sex trafficking. And maybe in itself that’s not bad, but this comes in the context of Caviezel being known for endorsing various QAnon conspiracy theories and for Ballard receiving nearly all of his financial support from the Christian nationalist right.
Opposing child sex trafficking, while a worthy endeavor, has been a cause du jour among Christian nationalists for a few years, and Ballard has been a hero within the movement even though he has gained a reputation for telling exaggerated tales and Operation Underground Railroadhas gained a reputation for being ineffective and possibly even harmful in its efforts to fight trafficking.
Caviezel expresses his hope in the epilogue that Sound of Freedom will become to child sex trafficking what the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery. In itself that may be a noble hope, but that perspective has been used in recent days on social media to suggest that those who don’t support the film are supporters of child sex trafficking. The film isn’t that good, so the social media chatter makes the film’s marketing seem manipulative.
Is that a fair accusation? Maybe not, but it is true that Caviezel will be at a special screening of the film next week with ex-President Trump, and all stops are out to make this film seem like something for the extreme right to rally around.
Caviezel and his character speak truth when they declare that “God’s children are not for sale.” Unfortunately, the film and its marketing make it too easy to downplay a real problem that should unite us in opposition rather than divide us.
According to new reports in the past few days, Ballard and OUR have parted ways. The reasons aren’t clear.