It's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but for QAnon: Film spreading child trafficking hysteria is making bank

God's children may not be for sale, but box-office hit "Sound of Freedom" is making a run on the public's credulity

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 22, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Sound of Freedom (Angel Studios)
Sound of Freedom (Angel Studios)

The following contains spoilers for "Sound of Freedom"

During a post-movie visit to the women's restroom, I overheard a woman sobbing in a stall. I'm not a psychic, so I can't say for a fact that "Sound of Freedom" is the reason she was crying. I can only confirm that she was one of the nine other people in the theater with me. 

Two more walked in looking similarly stricken, and I overheard one say in an astonished tone, "They're just children."

Never underestimate the power of the movies, even the rare ones with no marketing budget and lacking major studio support. Regardless of whether you agree with the partisan forces that have attached themselves to "Sound of Freedom," the child trafficking thriller starring Jim Caviezel is an unmitigated box office hit. Since its July 4 domestic release, it's well on its way to out-earning heavily promoted features like "The Flash."

More than this, "Sound of Freedom," which had a $14.5 million budget,  is now the highest-grossing independent release since theaters reopened in 2021, with its $100 million box office take blazing by the $77.1 million total for 2022's Best Picture winner "Everything Everywhere All at Once." On Wednesday alone it cleared $4,722,496, according to Box Office Mojo, making it second in popularity only to "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One," which made $4,740,147.

Predictably its success has been claimed by far-right conservatives as a victory for the team. But which one?

Church groups, who reportedly bought tickets by the busload and packed theaters in its opening weeks? The right-wing mediasphere, which has happily claimed its success as evidence that real America thinks more like them than evil Hollywood claims to?

QAnon, whose conspiracy theories embrace wild you-can't-make-this-up-except-you-totally-can stories about youth-obsessed liberal cabals kidnapping moppets to suck them dry of fright juice, i.e. adrenochrome?

The MAGA world, whose leader screened it at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey? No surprise there, since the film's producer Eduardo Verástegui is the founder of CPAC Mexico and a former advisor to Ghislaine Maxwell's well-wisher Donald Trump.

If there's any beneficiary to this phenomenon perhaps it is Tim Ballard, the former Homeland Security agent and Operation Underground Railroad founder, played by Caviezel. Even that's debatable since according to multiple reports, Ballard quietly left O.U.R. a week ago, around the time the movie began breaking box office records and reporters started digging into the substance of the allegedly true story on which the movie is based.

As for the losers, start with everyone who gave their money and two hours and 15 minutes of their life to a story that is at best embellished and, whether intentionally or by coincidence, profiting off conspiracy-fueled mass hysteria

For people who don't recognize Ballard as the most public face of a ridiculous tall tale accusing Wayfair of shipping stolen children in cabinets, the film's content may be extremely traumatizing. "Sound of Freedom" doesn't explicitly depict small children being abused, but the implication is enough. When a scene shows a thin little girl cowering in the corner of a bed in a strange room entered by an old white gringo, tumbler of brown liquor in one hand and bottle in the other, what else do we need to see?

There's a general lack of clarity concerning most of the plot's legitimacy.

Somehow, though, director Alejandro Monteverde recognizes the power of visual restraint, crafting "Sound of Freedom" into an action thriller with less violence and gunplay than you'd encounter on Caviezel's long-running CBS show "Person of Interest." The director knows his audience – and this audience – and styles his white savior exploits accordingly.

By the time Caviezel interrupts the end credits to comfort the audience and pass the tithing plate, even I felt primed to chip in for his earnestness. "I'm guessing some of you are feeling sad, maybe even overwhelmed or a sense of fear, which is understandable," he says, concern tugging at the corners of his eyes. "But living in fear isn't how we solve this problem. It's living in hope. It's believing that we can make a difference because we can."

Explaining that he believes "Sound of Freedom" can be "the 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' of the 21st Century" (wow) he invites people to scan the QR on the screen to become a part of the studio's Pay It Forward campaign. This gives the audience a means of contributing to ensure that nobody is denied the chance to watch "Sound of Freedom" due to economic hardship. How that makes a difference to any entity besides Angel Studios, the film's distributor, isn't clear.

Then again, there's a general lack of clarity concerning most of the plot's legitimacy.

The soul of "Sound of Freedom" recreates the origin story that Ballard has been telling, and figures such as Glenn Beck have promoted for nearly a decade. Recently, however, investigations by several journalists, including Vice News reports published in 2020 and 2021, and multiple findings by American Crime Journal, have put a few cracks in Ballard's heroic façade.

Sound of FreedomSound of Freedom (Angel Studios)The movie introduces Caviezel's Ballard as he busts a pedophile in Calexico, Calif. Once the man is in custody, he persuades him to arrange for him to get a live child. This is how Ballard comes to save Miguel (played by Lucás Ávila), a Honduran boy intercepted in the backseat of a van coming over the border, driven by a roly-poly perv claiming to be his uncle.

Once Miguel is examined, Ballard takes him out for a meal at American Burger (!) where the kid tells him he's eight and informs him that his sister Rocio (Cristal Aparicio) has also been captured. When he tells Miguel his first name is Timoteo, the boy's eyes light up and he shows Ballard a necklace his sister gave him that happens to have 'Timoteo' emblazoned on it.

The real Ballard claims the pendant was engraved with a line from 1 Timothy 6:11; at any rate, it explains why Mel Gibson's Jesus heads on a crusade to and through Columbia to find her. He ends up quitting his job and setting up an island-based sting operation funded by a multimillionaire (Verástegui) who "likes to play cop" which ends up saving more than 50 kids, but not Rocio.

But while everyone else tells him to give up the search, Ballard – who has an infinitely supportive blonde wife (played by Mira Sorvino) and half a quiverful of towheaded scamps waiting for him at home – refuses.

"God's children are not for sale," he declares before soldiering solo into the heart of the jungle to wrest Rocio from the clutches of a sweaty cocaine-manufacturing rebel, killing the creep with his bare hands.

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Yes, I just spoiled the film. (You're welcome.) But did I? Ballard has been fundraising off that necklace story at MAGA rallies and QAnon hootenannies for years. "Sound of Freedom" backs up some of his claims with archival footage that rolls at the end, showing photographs of the actual traffickers caught in the main island sting. American Crime Journal found arrest reports and court documents raising questions, though, about the tale's veracity.

Movies embellish the truth all the time. Most of them aren't blasting QAnon fearmongering via mainstream movie houses to an impressionable public that isn't aware, for example, that O.U.R. sells the opportunity to have courtside seats to such child trafficking stings – or in the case of one journalist invited to join him back in 2014, poolside.

"Sound of Freedom" also makes it seem as if the bulk of child sex trafficking happens to children like Rocio, small innocents yanked off the street by strangers.

A montage of CCTV footage capturing every parent's worst nightmare, showing scene after scene of kids being dragged off the street by adults, opens the movie. This plays in proximity to innocent Rocio, a slight girl of 11, first seen singing and banging out a syncopated rhythm on her childhood bed, grimly foreshadowing the fate Monteverde and his co-writer Rod Barr plot for her.

Rocio and Miguel are perfect victims – they're tiny, innocent, not even in their teens. Anti-trafficking experts are sounding the alarm about that inaccuracy and others, foremost being that most juveniles who are trafficked are adolescents and are groomed and victimized by people they know. Many are also LGBTQIA kids who are kicked out of their homes and preyed upon by malefactors claiming to be their saviors.

It's a straightforward rescue mission that channels a similar tension to "Predator," only the monsters are human.

One also has to wonder whether the movie would be receiving as much attention or scrutiny if it had come out closer to when production was completed in 2018. Part of the right-wing narrative claims that its five-year delay in getting to theaters was part of some entertainment industry plot to silence the truth.

The reality is mundane and recognizable to anybody who's been keeping up with the media industry's multiple mergers over the last few years. "Sound of Freedom" was originally set to be distributed by a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox, but when Disney acquired the company in 2019, it was shelved until the Christian-focused Angel Studios picked it up in 2023.

Despite Caviezel's starring role and the fact that Ballard is a Mormon, "Sound of Freedom" is not an overtly Christian feature. There is a moment when Caviezel's hero quotes Mark 9:42 before arresting a pedophile – "And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea" – and the movie's catchphrase. But other than a reformed cartel figure's story about divine intervention, that's pretty much the extent of the God stuff.

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Otherwise it's a straightforward rescue mission that channels a similar tension to "Predator," only the monsters are human. That makes "Sound of Freedom" tougher to stomach but easier to sell to an audience that deplores nudity and gore but can go all-in on child endangerment.

And it's a canny ploy, because who would dare poke holes in the accounts of youngsters suffering? Parsing the accuracy of the epilogue's litany of statements presented as fact, such as "Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry," opens a person to accusations that they either don't believe that child sex trafficking is a problem or worse, that they support it.

That statistic is true, by the way, but it refers to Homeland Security's data on all human trafficking, not just children. But to find that out you'd have to be skeptical of what you're seeing. You'd also have to dig for data crunched by experts in the field who, unlike Ballard, aren't fundraising off video stings set up in foreign countries. Most folks aren't going to do that.

"The most powerful person in this world is the storyteller," the actor says in his ending message, and $100 million in ticket sales would seem to back up that claim, regardless of whether it translates to full theaters. But the real proof is in what was said as I washed my hands of the experience in that ladies' room. Those were the voices of a few sad and overwhelmed people who are buying every scene. And we are right to find that disconcerting.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Jim Caviezel Movies Qanon Sound Of Freedom Tim Ballard Trafficking