I have a hard-and-fast rule: I don’t see movies in which children are shown to suffer or are in jeopardy. But I’m also 62, and sometimes I forget my own hard-and-fast rules the way I forget words here and there, so I somehow forgot the new movie Sound of Freedom was about child sex trafficking, and I agreed to write about it here. I wept on and off for two hours, and I’m warning you right now you will too if you go see it. You never see any abuse, but you don’t need to; even the mere suggestion that it might be happening, or that it’s coming, is enough to floor you.
The movie begins with a gorgeous con artist in Tegucigalpa scamming a naïve Honduran father into leaving his two little children with her for the day as she takes modeling pictures. When he returns, the photo studio has been stripped bare and the kids are gone. Cut to Jim Caviezel (Mel Gibson’s Christ) as a Homeland Security officer busting a pedophile in California as the creep is downloading images to the dark web. He too is a con artist of a kind; he gets the pedophile to cooperate by posing as a fellow evildoer and is handed a photo of the little Honduran boy we saw in the first scene with instructions on how to find him at a border crossing from Mexico.
Once Caviezel finds the kid, he’s scored what his supervisor calls a "career capper." But the boy has told Caviezel his sister was with him, and the anguish of their father at having one back but not the other torments him into dangerous action that takes him to Colombia, where the second half of the movie takes place.
Sound of Freedom has remarkable commonalities with another film released this year: The Covenant, directed by Guy Ritchie, in which a tormented Jake Gyllenhaal cannot rest until he has found and rescued the Afghan interpreter who saved his life in the waning years of the U.S. effort there. Ritchie is not a subtle director, and his lack of subtlety served him well in this instance by engaging the audience’s ire as well as its sympathy. The director and cowriter of Sound of Freedom is Alejandro Monteverde, and he’s not subtle either—but he has a gimlet eye and has made a beautifully shot and deeply considered picture that really only loses you in a final rescue scene that strains credulity to the breaking point.
Sound of Freedom is based on a true character. Caviezel is playing Tim Ballard, who quit the Department of Homeland Security to dedicate himself to combating sex trafficking. The central sequence in the movie is based on an elaborate sting he and his organization pulled off to get traffickers and kids into one controlled location, whereupon Colombian authorities busted the monsters and freed the kids. You see footage from the actual event in the movie’s final moments (including a shot of the gorgeous con artist, which seemed until that moment like a made-up detail) as well as clips of Ballard testifying on the subject before Congress.
The tales told by buccaneering global saviors should always be taken with a grain of salt, but that Ballard’s heart is in the right place and that he’s put his money where his mouth is cannot be gainsaid. Unless you’re a jerk from Jezebel or the Guardian determined to assassinate this movie because it (a) mentions God twice, (b) salutes a cause taken up by social conservatives at a time when liberals are far more concerned with helping authority figures castrate children rather than save them from international criminals, and (c) stars an actor sympathetic with QAnon conspiracies playing a person who has said QAnon ideas have brought people to his cause and given him an opportunity to educate them in the realities.
Now, I hate QAnon, and I’m sorry Jim Caviezel is a nut who goes on Steve Bannon’s podcast, and I really wish Ballard wouldn’t play footsie with any of this. But seriously, when I see liberals actively seeking to suppress a movie because its star and subject are not aligned with them politically, it makes me want to throw a pie in their faces. I’ve spent 50 years tolerating political views I find repellent from actors who make creditable movies and acknowledging the value of movies whose politics I might abhor. Give cultural and creative open-mindedness a shot, you idiot commissars. And screw you besides.
Released by a crowdfunded micromini studio called Angel Studios after it sat on a shelf at Fox and then Disney for five years (it was made in 2018) and with a profile so low in the pop-culture publicity mainstream it’s likely you’ve never heard of it until you started reading this piece, Sound of Freedom has made more than $40 million since its July 4 release. It has outearned the Jennifer Lawrence raunchcom No Hard Feelings (which I also liked), in part because it is experimenting with a fascinating direct marketing campaign. At the tail end of the movie, Jim Caviezel comes on screen with a "special message" in which he talks about how he and others want this movie to be for sex trafficking what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery. To that end, he says, Angel Studios has a "pay it forward" proposal for the audience. He asks those watching to open their phones and take a picture of a QR code. That takes you directly to a screen in which you are invited to buy tickets to Sound of Freedom that can be given to others.
I read a box-office report on an industry website (since edited, so I can’t quote it directly) tut-tutting about how Hollywood feels like this ticket-buying ploy is somehow unfair and a form of cheating but that movie-theater owners are absolutely delighted. Yeah. A ticket bought is a ticket bought. End of discussion, you whiny losers.
Here’s a test for Hollywood. This movie will likely be one of the few box-office surprises of 2023 when all is said and done. And it happens to feature what may be the best supporting performance in any American movie so far this year, from the extraordinary Bill Camp. If you know him at all, you know him as Mr. Shively, the orphanage janitor and chess guru on the stunning Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. Here he plays Vampiro, a former Medellin cartel lowlife who helps Caviezel in Colombia.
It’s a sensational performance. And Camp is a beloved character actor with a sterling reputation on stage, on the small screen and on the big screen. If this were any other kind of picture, he would be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. If he doesn’t get one, I will be back when nominations are announced early next year to double-down on my "screw you, you whiny losers" take on the morally decrepit response to this painful, necessary, one-of-a-kind movie.