Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (2024)

ByMike Wendling,BBC News

Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (1)Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (2)Angel Studios

Summer at the movies is a time for big-budget blockbusters, but this year an independent drama with religious undertones is both competing with the likes of Indiana Jones and causing a political stir.

Sound of Freedom tells the story of a government agent who busts a child sexual abuse ring operating in Colombia.

The main character is based on Timothy Ballard, a former Department of Homeland Security agent who founded an anti-human trafficking organisation, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR).

He goes undercover, and some of the gritty action scenes in the Colombian jungle wouldn't look out of place in a more conventional Hollywood flick.

The review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a critic score of 77%.

But this is not a typical summer blockbuster. A string of conspiratorial comments by the leading actor Jim Caviezel and the movie's themes have turned the film into another culture war flashpoint.

Mixed reviews

Rolling Stone called Sound of Freedom a "QAnon-tinged thriller" - a reference to the sprawling conspiracy theory that says that Donald Trump is fighting an elite cabal of satanic paedophiles.

That sort of biting coverage - the headline called it "a superhero movie for dads with brainworms" - was broadly reflective of reviews in left-leaning outlets, while right-wing publications took an altogether different line.

"It's not 'paranoid' or 'QAnon adjacent' to bring much-needed attention to horrors that are all too real," wrote the conservative National Review.

The idea that elite cabals of child sex traffickers lurk everywhere is a core QAnon idea. But the company behind the film denies it's fuelling conspiratorial thinking.

"Anyone who has seen this movie knows it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories," said Angel Studios president Jordan Harmon. "It's about a man who did something brave."

Star calls QAnon 'a good thing'

But those QAnon references are not entirely spurious. The film's star Caviezel has talked repeatedly about some of its more bizarre themes.

Caviezel attended a QAnon-themed conference in 2021 and has appeared a number of times on Steve Bannon's podcast, recently calling QAnon "a good thing".

Using the language of the movement, he warned that "a big storm is coming" and also referred to the "mystical qualities" of adrenochrome, a chemical that QAnon fans falsely believe is being harvested from the brains of child victims.

"On the one hand, Angel Studios is seeking to present this film as a mainstream movie, as an important story," said John Knefel, a senior writer at the left-wing media watchdog group Media Matters for America. "The other key prong of this marketing blitz is Jim Caviezel absolutely embracing QAnon messaging and theories."

"I do think that this could very well serve as a template for mainstreaming far-right ideas under the guise of an easy popcorn blockbuster," he said.

Operation Underground Railroad and Timothy Ballard have come under criticism for different issues in the past. Investigations by Vice News and others have accused the group of exaggerating their success in breaking up child sexual abuse rings.

And the energy around conspiracy theories has the potential to distract from legitimate efforts to tackle a very real problem.

"Anti-trafficking groups have already said that QAnon hinders their efforts, and the film revolves around the baseless panic that vast trafficking rings are waiting to snatch up American kids," says Mike Rothschild, an expert on QAnon and author of The Storm is Upon Us. "Trafficking is real but films like this obscure the real issue."

"The film is marketed to Q believers in much the same way as Q works, through fear of trafficking and appeals to emotion," he says.

But Mr Ballard hit back at critics, telling Fox News that those citing conspiracy theories "make zero connection to the actual story".

Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (3)Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (4)Getty Images

He told Fox: "It's going to be very awkward when the mainstream media comes after these [trafficked] kids next and accuses them of being part of some conspiracy, when in fact they were rescued from a life of rape. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in the media perhaps.

"It tells a story based in truth… I think that the left, these media outlets, they don't want to have a discussion that this film is going to compel."

Mr Ballard stepped away from OUR prior to the release of the film, the organisation said.

Box office success

Angel Studios has both denied links to QAnon and distanced itself from the remarks of the star of its surprise hit.

"Every actor has their opinions" and many have said controversial things, said Mr Harmon, the studio president.

"For us it's not about that, it's about getting a message out there… right now, there's children who are suffering."

Sound of Freedom had a long and somewhat tortured path to US movie theatres. Shot in 2018, it was bought by 21st Century Fox but shelved when that studio was bought by Disney, before being acquired by Angel - which is based not in Hollywood but Utah.

The company said 7,000 investors stumped up a total of $5m (£3.8m) earlier this year to market Sound of Freedom through social media posts and conventional advertising. And previous projects have created a pool of around 100,000 movie fans - Mr Harmon says most of them have a "faith leaning" - who spread word of the film.

"We built a grassroots movement," Mr Harmon said.

Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (5)Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (6)Angel Studios

The studio also encourages moviegoers to "pay it forward" - to buy and donate the price of admission as a way to support the film, and churches and conservative organisations have bought batches of tickets.

The marketing material played heavily on concerns about real-world child trafficking. Mel Gibson endorsed the movie, and Caviezel shot a promotional clip in which he repeated a line from the film urging people to watch it: "You can send the message that God's children are not for sale."

After a week in theatres, Sound of Freedom has pulled in more than $40m. Last weekend it took nearly $20m according to IMDB, compared to $27m for the new Indiana Jones instalment and $33m for the top-grossing Insidious: The Red Door.

In total Sound of Freedom has already made $40m compared to a budget of $14.5m.

More to come

Outside the political debate, the movie has received a range of fairly positive reviews. Variety, the entertainment news site, called it a "solidly made and disquieting thriller" with "a Christian undercurrent that occasionally becomes an overcurrent".

There's also more to come from Angel Studios. Mr Harmon said he hopes Sound of Freedom will remain in theatres for months, and the studio has multiple projects on the go.

"We've got a very large theatrical slate," he said. "And our community is growing very quickly."

Child abuse

Film

QAnon

Sound of Freedom: An unlikely - and controversial - summer movie hit (2024)
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