What precisely is the action drama Sound of Freedom, starring Jim Caviezel? a good independent action movie that has surprised in its financial success since its July 4 release? A heartfelt factual account of a genuine American hero? a perilous entryway into rumors and conspiracies? a risk that has produced results beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?
The answer is straightforward for filmmaker Alejandro Monteverde: Sound of Freedom was a calling. He claims that in 2017, after watching a feature on an evening news program—”60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline, I used to record them all”—about child trafficking, he started writing the movie. He says in an interview, “I watched it and I couldn’t sleep. I was aware of human trafficking. I simply had no knowledge of child trafficking for sexual exploitation.
He felt compelled to compose a movie about the subject the following day. He co-wrote the entirely fictitious screenplay The Model with Rod Barr, which tells the story of a wealthy, irresponsible man who stumbles into a black market for sexually exploited children and begins to purchase the children back into safety. “If I’d kept making a complete fiction, I wouldn’t have any of these attacks,” the native of Mexico adds ruefully.
However, the reality was different. Monteverde was instead asked if he had heard of Tim Ballard, a former homeland security special agent who had gained notoriety for the organization he formed, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), which is said to have assisted in the rescue of kidnapped children. Monteverde says, “So I Googled him.”
There were many web hits, including a positive 2014 CBS News article on Operation Triple Take, a cooperative effort between OUR and the Colombian government that purportedly saved 123 trafficked individuals, 55 of them were minors. “And I was like, Wow, I would love to meet this guy,” Monteverde recalled. “So I met him, and I could tell that his tale was better than my fiction.”
He revised the story with Barr. Now the movie would portray a highly fictionalized version of the earlier Colombian rescue.
Investigative reporter Lynn Packer claims that Ballard had long sought a larger stage for his and OUR’s endeavors. He and a group of filmmakers asked Glenn Beck in 2013 for financial support for a reality series that would show the rescue of trafficked children. The Abolitionists, a documentary about Ballard that was released in 2016, provided Ballard with even more mainstream legitimacy even if the series was never realized. He soon began giving speeches at companies like Google.
Ballard and OUR aren’t exactly in the center of the global struggle against human trafficking, claims Erin Albright, an attorney and veteran advisor to anti-trafficking task teams. She informs me that “the majority of the [anti-trafficking] field views them as fringe.” They “sell sensationalism…and they raise money off of it.”
When Monteverde started filming his film in 2018, these criticisms weren’t a topic of discussion. “I never in a million years imagined that this would be political,” he remarked of the movie, which would eventually turn into a Ballard biopic—albeit one that greatly exaggerates the truth. He claims that “I saw the piece [on child trafficking] on the mainstream media… ” to support his claim. I always imagined that this would be a movie that would bring us all together.
That might have happened if this movie had been released soon after it was finished. According to the producers, Sound of Freedom was independently made for a reported $14.5 million and sponsored primarily by a consortium of Mexican supporters. However, when Disney acquired 21st Century Fox in 2019, the movie lost its distributor, along with many other projects. Before being taken up by Provo, Utah-based Angel Studios in 2023 with plans to release the movie in theaters all throughout the country, Sound of Freedom was left on the back burner.
Between the time the movie was finished and when it was released in theaters, a number of important events transpired. The 2020 investigation into Ballard and OUR by Vice journalists Tim Marchman and Anna Merlan revealed “a pattern of image-burnishing and myth-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading.” They said Ballard and his group had carried out “blundering missions—carried out in part by real estate agents and high-level donors—that seemed aimed primarily at generating exciting video footage” in a later report. (Vanity Fair has not yet received a comment from Ballard. Ballard was initially offered an interview by an Angel Studios official, but they then claimed they were unable to get in touch with him to set up a meeting.)
These articles were widely read and disseminated, but they received just as much criticism as acclaim. That’s due to a second development: the QAnon collection of conspiracy ideas, which began in 2017 and progressively received popular attention over the following years. The movement’s “core falsehood,” as The New York Times described it, is that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
Around the end of 2020, QAnon began using allegations of child trafficking as a method of outreach. Adherents started “flooding social media with posts about human trafficking, joining parenting Facebook groups, and glomming on to hashtag campaigns like #SaveTheChildren,” as The New York Times reported at the time. Then, “the conversation moved to baseless theories about who they believe is doing the trafficking: a cabal of nefarious elites that includes Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Pope Francis.”
When Sound of Freedom’s pre-production got underway and he met with actor Jim Caviezel, Monteverde clearly couldn’t have known any of this. Ballard was given to the actor by Monteverde because of his commitment to the fight against child trafficking. Caviezel, who had long been outspoken about his strong Catholic beliefs, was still best known at the time for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. He had also recently finished filming the five-season CBS sci-fi crime thriller Person of Interest.
The author of the QAnon history book The Storm Is Upon Us, Mike Rothschild, claims that QAnon was only building up throughout the film’s production. In recent years, “Caviezel has had his Q-pilled awakening, I think partly because he was shooting this movie.”
Caviezel was unavailable for comment because of the SAG-AFTRA strike. However, news reports on comments he’s made in recent years imply that he shares the unproven QAnon theory that rich and famous people use kidnapped children’s blood to produce the chemical adrenochrome. The Daily Beast reports that in 2021, Caviezel spoke at a conservative convention about his experience filming Sound of Freedom and said Ballard had informed him of the chemical’s use by child traffickers.
Such assertions are absent from Sound of Freedom itself. None of the other conspiracies or overt politics in general do either. People like Rothschild, Marchman, and Merlan describe the film as adequate, occasionally even delightful. But even before the movie found a new distributor, QAnon’s unexpected interest in child trafficking and Caviezel’s comments placed a shadow on it.
Angel Studios may seem an odd choice for a film on something as gloomy and depressing as the sexual exploitation of minors given their self-described purpose to “amplify light” and their reliance on crowdfunded films for their business model. However, CEO Neal Harmon argues that it fits perfectly. According to him, “Sound of Freedom is first and foremost an action-packed hero’s story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.” “You leave with hope when you go.”
Harmon does more than just distribute movies. He co-owns Harmon Brothers, an advertising and marketing firm, with his brothers, who are all executives at Angel. Harmon Brothers has pushed products like the defecation-assistance stool Squatty Potty and the toilet odor spray Poo-Pourri. In addition, he is a co-founder of VidAngel, a business that engaged in a protracted legal dispute with Disney and Warner Brothers over the practice of editing out allegedly “objectionable content” from their TV episodes and films before streaming the modified works to VidAngel’s clients. (VidAngel agreed to pay the studios $9.9 million as part of a settlement.)
Harmon claims that there is little distinction between “selling seats for a movie” and “selling a physical product like the Squatty Potty.” Possibly one of Sound of Freedom’s more contentious aspects is that seat-selling tactic. A call to action was added to the film’s credits once Angel acquired the distribution rights. It urges viewers to “raise awareness” of child trafficking, but rather than making a donation to organizations that fight it or even directly to Ballard’s initiatives, viewers are invited to “pay it forward” by getting more movie tickets. An out-of-character Caviezel states, “We don’t have big studio money to market this movie, but we have you,” before a QR code pops on the screen.
As of today, Sound of Freedom had earned over $100 million, significantly exceeding all predictions. Harmon declined to disclose how much money Sound of Freedom has made from actual butts in seats and how much has come from the pay-it-forward revenue (which is tracked by a different sales platform). Harmon and Monteverde separately validated that Sound of Freedom’s earnings are increasing week over week rather than decreasing over time.
Jose Alfaro, a victim of human trafficking, is frustrated with this degree of achievement. Alfaro is aware of Ballard and OUR but hasn’t seen the movie. He claims that stories like Sound of Freedom’s, in which victim kidnapping results in trafficking by transporting victims across borders, “aren’t really representative of how more frequently this crime actually happens.” In agreement, Merlan claims that the film leads to the fallacious idea “that the problem of trafficking is best addressed by kicking down doors and carrying children out.”
Surprisingly, even OUR acknowledges this. According to the organization’s own website, “while this type of human trafficking exists, it isn’t the majority,” and “most trafficking happens through a manipulative grooming process,” as opposed to the kidnapping circumstances depicted in the movie.
Despite OUR’s promotion of Sound of Freedom on its website, the film makes no reference of the Ballard-founded group. Ballard is instead depicted in the movie as being essentially a one-man army. Ballard really quit OUR “prior to the launch of the film,” the group claimed to Vice, despite the fact that he was still working for OUR in May, when Davis County attorney Troy Rawlings concluded a multi-year investigation into the group. Rawlings had issued a warning on social media about giving money to groups who claimed credit for cases of child protection resolved by Utah’s Davis County task force. (When contacted by phone, Rawlings declined to make an official statement about the investigation conducted by his office. Multiple emails to OUR seeking comment have not received a response.)
Merlan, Marchant, and Albright speculate that OUR may have chosen to separate itself from a founder who has been concentrating his efforts on the periphery of the media as the film’s promotion got underway. Ballard and Caviezel are seated shoulder to shoulder in a video that was published three weeks ago by the right-leaning website The Daily Signal. The title of the interview is “Transgender Movement and Biden Border Policy Aid and Abet Child Sex Slavery, Tim Ballard Warns.” Ballard berates “the woke left agenda” in the video, claiming that “pedophiles have been pushing this agenda for decades.” A day after the video was published, Ballard discussed the widely refuted conspiracy notion of organ harvesting within child trafficking on Charlie Kirk’s podcast, the creator of Turning Point USA.
Even when Ballard isn’t the main character, the movie’s advertising follows fairly strict party lines. The movie will be shown this week at the Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club of former president Donald Trump, with Caviezel, Ballard, and actor Eduardo Verastegui in attendance.
But Monteverde won’t be there. In his conversation with Angel, he made it clear that he “did not want to participate in any event or thing that could be political” and that he wouldn’t give interviews about the movie to “any outlet that was associated with just one type of audience.” When questioned about the interviews Ballard and Caviezel gave to right-wing media, he responds, “When I see something like that, it’s very painful.”
Monteverde is aware that negative reviews are a part of doing business. He says, “I’m absolutely fine with it if people don’t enjoy the movie. “I dislike some movies, too!” But Sound of Freedom has generated a lot of contentious debate, mostly because of other people connected to the film. In a recent interview with Fox News, Ballard asserted that publications who have given the movie or its apparent politics unfavorable ratings are also attempting to “normalize sexual activity with children,” and that “pedophiles are salivating” at evaluations that are anything but positive.
Harmon suggests something similar to me, albeit much more subtly. He raises the possibility that some of the film’s detractors are those who stand to gain financially from child exploitation and “do not want public opinion to put a magnifying glass on this industry.”
One of the most common misconceptions about the movie is that Disney tried to “block” its distribution, presumably for evil reasons. Neither Harmon nor Ballard have done much to refute this. Disney claims that when it acquired its prior distributor, it was unaware that Sound of Freedom ever existed. It was only after Angel launched a crowdfunding effort that Disney was able to acquire the film’s rights.
Rolling Stone has received particular criticism from Ballard for allegedly “running interference for human traffickers and pedophiles.” Miles Klee gave the movie a negative review in the publication.
Klee thought Sound of Freedom was “overly long, badly plotted, and generally boring,” he tells me. The fact that he noted that it may “potentially be a recruitment tool for the far right” is more significant. The Friday following the opening of the film, his article was published. The following Monday, he claimed, he was being attacked on social media by people who claimed he had exposed himself as a pedophile through his job and was being singled out by far-right media outlets.
Alfaro claims that moviegoers have also assaulted him. The film has also drawn criticism for how it presents the sex trafficking industry or for how positively it portrays Ballard, as have other trafficking survivors. According to Alfaro, “These people claim to care about trafficking.” But in the end, you’re just sitting there calling trafficking victims who have survived pedophilia and trafficking traffickers because they disagree with this movie.
Monteverde is perplexed by everything because he had no idea that his film would be so commercially successful or embroiled in controversy. “I never wanted to make a film that would elevate Tim Ballard. The purpose of the film was to draw attention to the issue, the subject matter, and the gloom, he claims. “I’ve always believed that this is a movie that will unite people,” Instead, it appears that Sound of Freedom highlights gaps that are impenetrable.
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