Sound of Freedom
Sound of Freedom’s significance is less about its quality as a movie – it’s fine, as these things go, diligently attempting to avoid sensationalism and exploitation while simultaneously observing the rules of the thriller genre – or its box-office takings – more than decent, but nothing astonishing – than the conversation it has engendered. The debate on the motives and beliefs of the makers, and the legitimacy of the biographical subject (rather than the subject matter, per se) stretch to impugning it from both ends of the political spectrum. Thus, those who instantly dismiss it as “QAnon-adjacent” and all that entails are managing to find common ground with those calling out its financing (well, distribution), Tim Ballard (did he do what he said he did, his alleged associations) and its star (he’s seen making the hand signals, meeting the Pope).
So Sound of Freedom has been distributed by Christian crowdfunding outfit Angel Studios, meaning it instantly qualifies for designation as the stuff of right-wing zealotry. Its lead actor is pals with Mel Gibson (who endorsed the picture but is otherwise unconnected) and has invoked QAnon as legitimate in interviews. Tim Ballard is somewhat shady in terms of his documented achievements. Most of these positions can also be found, but with a slightly different emphasis, in the locale of perma-mistrustful Truthers; Mexican businessman Carlos Slim (Clinton and Haiti connections) is listed as an executive producer. Jim Caviezel is clearly entrenched in Dark Hollywood and is just playing his part (as is Mel: will you look at those hand signals). Ballard’s rep is patchy, he can be seen sporting a masonic tie – newsflash, if anyone with masonic connections is eliminated from genuine White Hat status by default, there’ll be barely anyone left – and can be connected to the Clintons. And all agree the movie isn’t an authentic document of Ballard’s actual alleged achievements (obviously: it’s a movie).
Yes, there’s reason to be doubtful of Ballard’s bona fides (I’ve seen suggestion he “got out years ago” from involvement with bad guy activities and is now fully on board with the White Hats. My favourite one implies he’s actually Paul Walker). It would appear White Hats involved with the production know the fact from fiction with regard to Ballard; the conclusion would be that, as with many things, this was deemed the best vehicle to get across a message, pitched at a certain volume and filtering through to a certain audience at a certain point in time. After all, look at the conversation it has provoked, far and away more valuable than its gross. It’s a conversation that primarily – in terms of its mainstream impact – has focussed on left vs right Hegelian divisions, which is indicative enough that, in terms of testing the waters for any imminent disclosure or appetite for hearing the truth – and anything released into the culture such as this will conferred some degree of litmus, even if that isn’t necessarily its prime purpose – very little has shifted in the last three years for a certain (substantial) segment of the population (in terms of the political sphere, as if it needs saying, Elite practices have broadly accounted for any incumbency of the highest office in the land historically, regardless of nominal party affiliation).
If we’re talking left/mainstream media responses, Sound of Freedom’s characterisation in any other way would have been shocking. At the other, alternative extreme, suspicion of motives is absolutely justified and commendable, but there is a certain Truther level where such dogmatism can smack of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face; any individual of profile, means or influence – and any who are not, for that matter – can, through a modicum of judicious digging, be presented as culpable or liable in motives or presentation, so if one’s methodology is simply to poison waters as a reflex, it’s both very easy and a bottomless pit (and it inevitably means that any who do so while nevertheless attesting to the genuineness of certain White Hats are being partial in their principles). In extremis, such positioning is not so dissimilar to wokesters, in terms of all-or-nothing, black-or-white standards all the way.
So if Sound of Freedom isn’t right wing, it’s an Elite ploy to undermine the child-trafficking issue, dilute it of its impact (and is thus a limited hangout of a “create the problem and offer the solution” variety; a sop so you don’t worry anymore). The problem with such a take is partly who they think is going to be “duped” by this. If you believe child-trafficking is a serious problem, the movie won’t miraculously appease you. If you’re one of those going to see it on its first weekend, you’re more than likely one of the converted its preaching to, rallying round and showing their support (let’s characterise them, for the sake of argument, as Trump-voting Christians. Maybe not fully versed with QAnon, necessarily, but certainly up for thinking the Left are a bunch of Satanists). If you don’t believe child-trafficking is a vast and unassailable concern, if you vouch for leaving the UN and UNICEF to do the “good” they do where these situations arise, without the likes of Ballard sticking his oar, or OUR, in, you most likely aren’t going to see it anyway.
To a degree, the left position may have a sliver of a point in attacking the integrity of those behind Sound of Freedom, because this IS a movie someone who has no truck with QAnon, Pizzagate or adrenochrome conspiracy theories can watch and consider entirely reasonable (give or take the de rigueur Hollywood genre trappings). They probably worry it’s a “gateway drug” in that regard, but really, I doubt most want to dwell on the subject, if they aren’t dwelling on it anyway. The movie is a relative event; it’s a success, but only in so much as it’s a step above niche (see also: God’s Not Dead). It’s much more resonant for its impact on social-media echo chambers*.
I hadn’t realised the picture was stuck on the shelf for half-a-decade, having been picked up by Fox, which was then bought by Disney. Which buried it, doubtless, as deep as the tunnels beneath Disneyland. Given the way child-trafficking/satanic abuse has gained traction during the intervening period, it seems quite plausible – even aside from its evident intention to avoid any of the more expressly conspiracy-minded aspects that come with it – that those involved with the initial production weren’t necessarily au fait with the more “outré” aspects of the subject.
It seems that, even given the prevailing primers preceding the picture, the majority of critics have admitted that, despite prefacing their reviews with the trappings, there’s nothing that smacks of right-wing ideology here at all. The worst you’re likely to get is an inference that designating child trafficking as a problem is a problem (because that trickles into Epstein, and Pizzagate, and then you’re right back at QAnon’s door). And sure, God earns a mention several times – asked why he’s doing what he’s doing, Caviezel’s Ballard replies “Because God’s children are not for sale”; Bill Camp’s Vampiro says of his Road-to-Damascus moment, “When God tells you what to do, you cannot hesitate” – but nothing that’s going to make a non-believer desperately uncomfortable.
Rolling Stone offered an inflammatory take – clearly designed to imply the makers were just as bad as those they were depicting – that Sound of Freedom as guilty of “fetishising the torture of its child victims and lingering over lush preludes to their sexual abuse”. There is a point to be made in this regard, though, as the set-ups it’s describing are a consequence of the makers’ dedication to suggestion rather than depiction (this is perhaps best summed up by Ballard watching a video of abuse, which plays out through a closeup of his eye welling with tears). What’s the most responsible way to tackle such material? I’m rather leery of dramatisations. Mel making a documentary seems preferable, even if the audience may not be as extensive as the coverage this gets/has gotten.
Bruce Robinson broached this general area in Alastair Owen’s Smoking in Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson. Discussing his screenplay for In Dreams – “It turned into a kind of repulsive horror film that no one would want to watch, least of all me” – Robinson observed that “The great challenge – and whether I pulled it off or not is moot, because the film was never made like I wanted it to be – was to write a film about a paedophile and not show a child in jeopardy. That’s the essential thing. It’s a very sensitive area; I’m a parent, and probably forty percent of the cinema-going public are parents, and none of us wants to be entertained by seeing a dead child. The first thing that Neil [Jordan, the director] does is have this kid killed” (Jordan directed In Dreams after Spielberg – yep – passed on the project, having instigated it. Asked if “the notion of a serial killer who’s killing children” was part of Spielberg’s brief, Robinson replied “I think that was intrinsic to it, yeah”. Spielberg, lest we forget, considered it entirely legitimate to furnish Schindler’s List with a fake-out gas chamber sequence, purely for the purposes of suspense).
Such considerations are clearly on director and co-writer Alejandro Monteverde’s mind. How do you make an impact while limiting such scenarios? Roberto (José Zúñiga) is duped by Gisselle (Yessica Borroto) into allowing his children Miguel and Rocio to audition for the entertainment biz; she dangles the offer of modelling contracts, and the young girls are shown posing in lipstick and styled hair, replicating the “glamorousness” of the adult world, before the door shuts on them and the camera pulls back; there’s video footage of opportunistic street abductions; the kidnapped kids are shown in dank shipping crates, en route from Honduras to Colombia; Miguel’s paedophile purchaser tells him “I can help you, but you need to help me too” before warning that, if he doesn’t, his sister will be hurt (this has a peculiar parallel when another strange man, Tim this time, locates Rocio and warns her “You need to do exactly what I say or they’ll kill us both. Do you understand?”) Frankly, even with the reticence displayed, the prelude strays into the area Robinson discusses, of showing a child in jeopardy (because we know what is coming next, even if we don’t see it).
Which is doubtless why the picture is keen to spend its subsequent time on firmer ground; Tim, having gone to Colombia in search of Rocio, haunted by her father’s “Could you sleep at night knowing one of your children’s beds is empty?” has the bright idea of establishing a high-end sex hotel on a “private island” with Vampiro’s aid; the sting is a success, rescuing 54 children, but Rocio isn’t among them. So Tim heads into rebel-controlled territory, deep in the Amazon jungle, posing as a doctor armed with vital vaccines (! – this was definitely made pre-plandemic). Lickety-split, he locates Rocio, kills rebel leader El Alacrán, and gets the flock out of there.
The last third of the picture is thus very much prescribed formula and might be swapped in for any search-and rescue narrative. Perhaps most affecting is Vampiro, who was once part of a cartel but now buys children and sets them free, recounting how he came to mended his ways; he realised the age of the prostitute he was with: “I’m the darkness in her eyes… All of a sudden, I’m getting hit by this tidal wave, And I know the darkness has to die”. That’s perhaps illustrative, that the subject is best treated obliquely and bounced off others, rather than dramatised directly through the victims.
It goes without saying that Cavaziel’s completely dedicated and entirely compelling (Camp gets the showboating role and duly delivers). Mira Sorvino has a glorified cameo as Tim’s supporting wifey (“You quit your job, and you go and rescue those kids”). One of the paedophiles mentions “the butterfly cruise”, which I wondered might be an MKUltra reference. Sound of Freedom is buffeted by heavenly choirs throughout (Javier Navarrete furnished the score); an obvious choice if an understandable one. There’s a well-judged moment where Tim responds to Miguel’s request for confirmation that his sister will be safe, even though Miguel has gone against his word by relating his ordeal, with “I promise that they will never find out what you told me” (he can’t promise the boy she’s okay). There are no allusions to Elites conspiring in child-trafficking here, nor indeed government agencies, underlining that it sees its remit in the most accessible terms. The makers would rather preserve a sobriety few will dispute, namely the “fastest growing international crime network the world has ever seen”.
*Addendum 15/07/23: Actually, that’s something of an underestimation, as Sound of Freedom seems set to gross well over $100m stateside: a long way off The Passion of the Christ, but substantially more than any other faith-angled fare.