Not the final installment of Indiana Jones, nor the seventh of Mission: Impossible: a film called Sound of Freedom has become the summer’s unexpected blockbuster. Released on July 4, it is a modest production about child trafficking, cheered on by the extreme right and starring Jim Caviezel, one of its most visible figures. It cost $14.5 million, and this weekend it will exceed 60 million in the box office.
It is based on the true story of Tim Ballard, a Homeland Security agent dedicated to combating pedophilia. Fed up with hunting down criminals in his country without tackling the roots of the mafias that traffic children in Latin America, he decides, with the support of his wife, the mother of his seven children, to go into hiding in Colombia, dismantle a criminal network and restore freedom to more than 50 minors, in particular two Honduran brothers, kidnapped at the beginning of the film during a fake photo session.
The film does not get to the part in which Ballard founded in 2013 an organization against child trafficking. He has recently abandoned the organization, whose name echoes the slavery abolition movement (Operation Underground Railroad), and he has been criticized for exaggerating the achievements of his crusade. It also fails to mention that Donald Trump appointed him a White House adviser to combat human trafficking. The former president has scheduled a screening of the film for supporters and campaign donors next week at his summer residence in New Jersey.
In addition to becoming an unexpected blockbuster, Sound of Freedom has sparked controversy for its alleged apology for one of the most beloved conspiracy theories of the amorphous far-right movement QAnon, which argues that the progressive elite in the United States feeds a sinister global organization of child sex trafficking. During the campaign that brought Trump to the presidency, it was one of the most unhinged arguments against Hillary Clinton. The story led to Pizzagate, which argued that a group of high-ranking Democrats abused minors in the basement of a popular Washington pizzeria. A QAnon adherent showed up one day with a rifle, only to discover that he had been tricked: the Comet Ping Pong restaurant has no basement.
Sound of Freedom, directed by the Mexican Alejandro Monteverde with efficiency bordering on the aesthetics of an after-dinner telefilm, does not delve into politics, nor does it quote QAnon. Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, has been in charge of connecting the dots in the promotional interviews, in which he has repeated the motto of the alt-right (“the storm is already here”) and has brought up “adenochrome,” a substance derived from adrenaline, which conspiracy theorists claim that liberal elites extract from the blood of kidnapped children.
Trump, ‘chosen of God’
Caviezel thanked Trump on Thursday for his decision to screen the film. “I want to tell you that when you see it you will feel at peace because you, more than anyone, have done incredible things that Jesus preached,” he said on the podcast of far-right ideologue Steve Bannon. “I believe that Donald Trump was chosen by Almighty God, and I’m talking about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he added.
The film’s producers, led by actor Eduardo Verástegui, a prominent anti-abortion activist and president of the Mexican branch of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which brings together the far-right elements of the Republican Party, deny those links. Behind the project, funded in part by 7,000 crowdfunding contributions, is Angel Studios, an independent Christian-inspired company based in Provo, Utah, famous for the hit series The Chosen.
Sound of Freedom has been ready since 2018. The producers signed a distribution contract with 20th Century Fox, later acquired by Walt Disney, which decided to put the project in a drawer. The multinational has been in conflict for a year with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for having criticized his educational law, known as Don’t Say Gay, because it prohibits the teaching of sexual diversity in schools. DeSantis, as the most extreme Republican faction, equates certain Democratic policies of inclusion in schools to the corruption of minors.
When the credits of Sound of Freedom begin, a text in the corner of the screen announces a message. Just over two minutes later, a contrite Caviezel reviews the “unimaginable obstacles” the production went through to reach theaters, quoting Steve Jobs and Lincoln, two of the few consensus figures in a fractured country, saying he hopes for the film to become “21st-century slavery’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a reference to the H.B. Stowe novel that helped raise awareness of the horrors leading up to the Civil War. He invites viewers to take out their mobile to scan a QR code and buy a ticket for someone “who does not have money to pay for it.” “Let’s make millions of people see it,” he adds.
The unusual strategy may have made it difficult to find a seat this week in the usually half-empty movie theaters of Washington and its metropolitan area, which are overwhelmingly Democratic. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it has risen to the top of the box office in areas of republican states such as Texas, Tennessee and Florida.
Experts attribute this in part to the fact that Angel Studios has retained an audience for its Christian stories (one of the key phrases of the film states that “the children of God are not for sale”). Of course, it cannot be said that traditional media (translated: “left-leaning”) has contributed to the film’s success. The film has also garnered favorable reviews, including from Variety and from New York’s conservative political magazine National Review, which noted its “moral clarity.”
Its producers have warned that they will keep it in theaters for as long as people continue to go see it. In a new anti-Hollywood gesture, they will later offer it on streaming on an exclusive platform.
Until then, it’s time to pay the AMC chain, which, at least in the Washington area, has screened the movie in its medium-sized theaters and continues to reserve the big spaces for blockbusters. The theater has also been the victim of another conspiracy theory: that managers canceling screenings, interrupting them for technical problems and turning off the air conditioning to annoy the moviegoers. Angel Studios and AMC released a joint statement to deny those baseless accusations.
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