Usually when the culture war comes to the movies, it’s in the form of conservative backlash to films they perceive as too liberal. Increasingly, however, conservative filmmakers, often working outside of Hollywood’s studio system, are grabbing the spotlight with unexpected hits, some packed with ideology and tinged with hallmarks of the modern right-wing worldview: moral panic, hints of vast leftist conspiracies, and a sense of persecution.
The latest surprise right-wing hit to tick these bingo squares is Sound of Freedom. The film stars Jim Caviezel in the very (very) loosely true story of Tim Ballard, who founded the controversial anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR. Coasting on word of mouth and a mountain of free publicity from influential supporters like Elon Musk and Mel Gibson, Sound of Freedom went head to head against Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in its July 4 opening weekend and wound up reportedly out-earning the Harrison Ford-led sequel by several million on opening day (if its maker Angel Studios’ on-site accounting is to be believed). It’s since gone on to earn nearly $50 million. Not bad for an indie outsider.
But Sound of Freedom has also generated a considerable amount of scathing left-wing backlash, aimed at both the movie itself, with its QAnon-adjacent rhetoric, and the film’s target audience. Multiple left-wing critics have spent parts of their reviews of the film itself denigrating the way its fans are watching it, with one critic seemingly appalled that audiences “acted like they were at Top Gun.” For their part, those audiences have flocked to the theater with the zeal of parishioners. Some fans have described attending the movie as a “duty,” while others have spun conspiracy theories that movie theaters are trying to prevent them from seeing the film — which, of course, just generates more determination to watch the film to spite the libs.
Yet the patriotic zeal behind Sound of Freedom might mask more than murky political agendas: According to a report by Newsweek and the police report, one of the film’s financial backers was recently charged with accessory to felony kidnapping. And even more disturbing, well into the film’s theatrical run, Vice reported that Ballard had suddenly “stepped away” from his position as head of OUR for unknown reasons, despite still continuing to promote and do press for Sound of Freedom.
In September, Vice ultimately confirmed with OUR representatives that Ballard had resigned from OUR on June 22, 2023, and was no longer affiliated with OUR in any way. The details come from an anonymous letter, first reported on by Vice and then made public by independent Utah journalist Lynn Packer on Packer’s YouTube channel on September 17. According to the letter, Ballard’s departure was prompted by an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint involving seven women filed against him by an OUR employee. The letter contains horrific allegations against Ballard, including that he used the aims of OUR — saving sex trafficking victims — to “deceitfully and extensively groom” female employees into role-playing as his “wife” during rescue trips. He would then use the ruse of being husband and wife to allegedly coerce them into performing sexual acts with him, including showering together, sharing a bed, and “doing ‘whatever it takes’ to save a child.”
Clearly, there’s a lot happening around this film — and while Sound of Freedom ostensibly wants to create awareness about child trafficking, that theme has mostly gotten lost in all the noise.
Sound of Freedom is its own, highly effective, hype machine
Sound of Freedom was filmed in 2018 by director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, but its release was delayed after Disney acquired its original distributor, Fox — a fact that has led to false rumors that Hollywood tried to shut the film down. When the film languished in Disney limbo, Angel Studios, a small independent film company based in Utah, stepped in. Angel has had a string of recent Christian hits like the 2019 streaming series The Chosen, which landed on Netflix, and His Only Son, 2023’s other Christian box office success. Angel partly crowdfunded the film’s $5 million distribution budget from “angel investors”, i.e., studio superfans like Tony Robbins.
With all that indie outsider energy combined with the long delay in release, Sound of Freedom was primed to feed a meta-narrative about the right’s sense of oppression at the hands of the left. Still, while most mainstream media reviewers have either been dismissive of the film or ignored it altogether, Sound of Freedom has its unexpected champions. Variety called it a “solid,” “disquieting” thriller and praised Caviezel’s performance as his finest since The Passion of the Christ.
At the root of the film’s power seems to be its “urgency” toward its subject matter; fans apparently leave the theater galvanized to proselytize on its behalf, spreading the word about the dangers and rampant devastation of child trafficking — and, most of all, about OUR and its all-important rescue missions.
That evangelism plays right into film studio Angel’s marketing strategy, which encourages moviegoers to buy tickets for other would-be converts — in fact, after the film’s end credits, Caviezel himself urges fans to buy more tickets at the studio’s website in order to “make Sound of Freedom the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 21st century slavery.” In the lead-up to its release, Angel anecdotally piggy-backed on a long tradition of Christian film marketing by targeting churches and encouraging block ticket sales in order to engage entire communities and spread word of mouth. (Some of the film’s detractors have disputed the movie’s box office success, noting that some theaters appear to be sold out when they aren’t, that user reviews on websites like IMDb read like bot spam, and that the online ticketing system Angel encourages fans to use may be vulnerable to manipulation.) In June, for the film’s July 4 release, Elon Musk offered the production free publicity; on July 1, Mel Gibson went viral for promoting the film. “The first step in eradicating this crime is awareness,” he intoned solemnly. “Go see Sound of Freedom.”
It’s easy to see how emotionally charged all of this is — it’s a hype machine that’s not just a hype machine, but a patriotic, perhaps even divinely mandated, responsibility. Adjacent to this urgent, awareness-raising narrative, however, sits QAnon — the baseless extremist conspiracy theory that high-powered liberals and elites are trafficking children and harvesting their adrenalin in order to attain eternal life. Sound of Freedom doesn’t explicitly reference QAnon or any of its most common narratives, and Ballard has brushed off the connection — but in the same breath he speaks of liberals “running interference” for traffickers by creating such rumors. Arguably more damning: Caviezel’s open embrace of QAnon. The actor has repeatedly referenced QAnon rhetoric; he recently promoted Sound of Freedom on former Trump-admin and extremist Steve Bannon’s podcast by referencing the aforementioned (false) adrenalin harvesting, a.k.a. “adrenochroming.” He also recently defended QAnon by comparing its detractors to Nazi and Klan apologists.
None of this directly links the film to QAnon. But it doesn’t help that reviewers who’ve been less than charitable about the film have been deluged with harassment from people calling them pedophiles and groomers. Rolling Stone’s Miles Klee, who, in his review, highlighted numerous examples of Sound of Freedom fans linking themselves to QAnon, told journalist Marisa Kabas that “the intensity of the death threats and pedophile smears outstripped any previous hate campaign I’ve experienced in my career.” (Disclaimer: Both Klee and Kabas are former colleagues and friends.) Still, Klee also noted that to the film’s fans he was just “a convenient embodiment” of evil for “a demographic that thinks child abusers and groomers make up the entire government, entertainment industry, and media, and all run cover for each other.”
These two competing meta-narratives about the film have overshadowed the film itself. But if the primary objection to Sound of Freedom is that it’s a giant dog whistle for QAnon recruitment, then, the counterargument from its supporters usually goes that the film’s subject matter ought to transcend politics, despite how politically charged it is. After all, everyone should want to protect children, right?
Well, not everyone. One of the film’s apparent financial backers, Fabian Marta, was arrested on July 23 on felony charges of accessory to child kidnapping in Missouri. If convicted, Marta could face a lengthy sentence, with a minimum of 10 years in prison.
So the question then becomes: Is protecting children what Sound of Freedom is really valorizing?
The real organization behind Sound of Freedom is also its own hype machine
Sound of Freedom heavily fictionalizes the real-life figure of Ballard, a Mormon with a self-reported history of work with the CIA (unconfirmed per a Vice investigation) and Homeland Security, who founded OUR in 2013 out of a desire to do more to fight human trafficking. The group quickly made a splash via dramatic self-promotion, including producing a movie, The Abolitionist (2016), and a podcast, In the Trenches. In 2017, MAGA whisperer Jon McNaughton produced an infamous painting which depicts Ballard and a bevy of white people as modern-day Harriet Tubmans, carrying trafficked victims to freedom while Abraham Lincoln and a crowd of American patriots look on approvingly. OUR filmed at least one of its early sting operations, a faux house party which reporters actually attended and which Ballard has used to bolster his claims to expertise. This is one of the glitzier heroic moments that Sound of Freedom depicts onscreen.
In reality, however, OUR has come under repeated scrutiny for making false claims about its exploits, including taking credit for missions and rescues it had no part in, failing to give adequate support to rescued survivors, falsely claiming partnerships with other rescue organizations, and being vague and obfuscatory about what its missions are and where its sizeable donor funds are going. (The organization claims this is to protect the safety of victims.) One Utah prosecutor spent years pursuing criminal charges against the group, though without ultimately bringing a case. In 2014, Ballard, then the CEO of OUR, allegedly used a psychic medium as his “source” for trying to locate a missing child. “He’s not making decisions tactically,” an anonymous source told Vice in 2021 about their experiences with Ballard. “He’s making decisions like a reality TV producer.”
With the news emerging that Ballard has spent years using OUR as a grooming ground for women, it’s possible the project served as less of a public service and more like his personal vanity RPG; indeed, part of his alleged grooming strategy was to literally role-play husband-and-wife with various women while on rescue missions.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Ballard’s crusade hasn’t been influential. In fact, it’s perfect for capitalizing on a cultural moment in which public concern about trafficked children is arguably at an all-time high. The ongoing spread of QAnon as well as the recent reappearance of classic anti-LGBTQ “groomer” rhetoric have given conservatives the ultimate perfect excuse to demonize liberalism. Just as Ballard’s real goal seems to be less about protecting children and more about promoting Tim Ballard, calls to protect children are really about attacking left-wing ideology, no matter how bizarrely unfounded such attacks are.
Ballard himself has leaned all the way into these murky elisions; in 2020, he described QAnon to the New York Times as a positive development, helping people to “open their eyes” to the reality of human trafficking. That same year, he seemed to affirm a false conspiracy theory, created in QAnon communities, that the furniture retailer Wayfair was facilitating child trafficking.
More recently, while promoting Sound of Freedom on Fox & Friends, Ballard claimed that allowing trans teens to transition would somehow lead to lowered ages of consent and implied that American immigration policies were leading to increased child trafficking. It is true that reports of illegal labor exploitation of migrant children have increased dramatically since the pandemic; however, reports of a widespread child sex trafficking phenomenon are false, a straightforward, old-school “think of the children” moral panic. Like all moral panics, this one gets used to justify hatred against perceived outsiders, in this case immigrants and queer and trans people.
Can any of this just be about going to the movies? (Alas, probably not.)
None of this should erase the horrifying reality of human trafficking or its impact on victims and survivors. Director Monteverde’s father and brother were both murdered by drug traffickers in 2015, so if anyone has a personal interest in making a film about the dangers of trafficking and the elite corruption that enables it, it’s him.
Yet all of this debate erases another quirk surrounding Sound of Freedom — that without the film’s meta-narratives, it’s just a passably entertaining action thriller, a la Taken. If you don’t think too hard about it (why does Caviezel’s Ballard, as Klee observes, spend the whole movie talking about protecting children while fully ignoring his own?), it’s just a good time at the movies.
But is that allowed? Are conservatives allowed to simply have fun at the movies, even if they’re having fun watching a film that reifies the extremist rhetoric in which they are steeped? Are liberals allowed to have fun at the movies if the dumb action flick they’re watching is also doubling as a conspiracy theory recruitment tool? Can the answer to both of these questions just be “yes,” simply because it’s summer and we’re all very tired, without some vital existential fight being lost?
Uncertainty over these concerns might be why some reviewers have been so harsh on audiences at Sound of Freedom for merely watching the film. Slate lowkey fat-shamed the audience (“The audience toted jumbo buckets of popcorn and trash can–sized sodas”) while Rolling Stone high-key age-shamed them. (“Nonetheless, the mostly white-haired audience around me could be relied on to gasp, moan in pity, mutter condemnations, applaud, and bellow ‘Amen!’ at moments of righteous fury ... not even the occasional nasty coughing fit — and we had no shortage of those — could break the spell.”) Meanwhile, the audience can’t decide if they’re being oppressed because the theater is too hot or because the theater is too cold — but many of them seem convinced they’re being oppressed.
And if, as one analyst told Variety, “The strong response to faith-based films reflects a demand by an underserved audience who are hungry for entertainment that reflects their values and beliefs,” then the question becomes one that many people of faith have grappled with: Can such faith-based cultural products even exist at this point, let alone serve their specific malnourished target audience, without also fomenting extremist rhetoric, bigotry, and attacks on progressive ideals? If such works can somehow manifest, would their target audiences even want them?
It’s arguable that for many evangelicals and other conservatives, the answer would be no. The controversy and the sense of persecution that accompany these films only increases the dopamine high many get from rebelling against the evil mainstream media by ... watching this fairly mainstream movie. These are conservatives, after all, whose worldview frames patriarchal norms as synonymous with strength and leadership, which is again synonymous with patriotism. The rugged individualism and masculine rogue operatives on display in Sound of Freedom are precisely tailored to cater to their views of idealized America; it must be profoundly validating to see such a fully formed conservative image of masculinity draped in the trappings of a typical glossy blockbuster.
Still, that masculine heroism is by no means unique to Sound of Freedom; it’s not as though Hollywood has ever missed the opportunity to cater to conservative audiences with a strong male archetype. And it’s hard to feel too much pity for an “underserved” faith-based populace, given that conservative ideology, from Yellowstone to Green Book, still permeates mainstream Hollywood narratives. If audiences acted like they were at Top Gun, that’s arguably because they basically were.
Just as films like Top Gun serve to keep us from criticizing America’s military-industrial complex, Sound of Freedom aims to keep us from scrutinizing hyperbolic, alarmist cries about child trafficking too closely. That, ironically, helps shut down useful conversation about the best way to effectively help curb trafficking. The point of such myths, after all, isn’t really to save children, but to create shrill narratives with which to demonize the left and other perceived outsiders. Just as OUR itself is something of a smokescreen, Sound of Freedom is ultimately a form of extremist propaganda — and that extremism is at least as dark and dangerous as the very thing Sound of Freedom wants to combat.
Clarification, August 29, 12:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on July 14 and has been updated to clarify that investor Fabian Marta faces accessory to kidnapping charges.
Update, September 18, 5:40 pm ET: This story has been updated to include allegations of sexual misconduct against Tim Ballard.