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**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Price of Freedom **
Sound of Freedom
Directed by Alejandro Gómez Monteverde
Written by Rod Barr and Alejandro Monteverde
Produced by Eduardo Verástegui
Starring Jim Caviezel, Mira Sorvino, and Bill Camp
Distributed by Angel Studios
There is no scenario in which a film about child trafficking created and distributed in this cultural climate does not generate controversy. Yet the filmmakers behind Sound of Freedom have done a fairly remarkable job of crafting a haunting meditation on a real-world phenomenon wrapped in the relatively bloodless package of a classic thriller. In one sense, this is a film that a thoroughly secular production team could not have made, due to the amount of restraint required when it comes to depicting the grueling subject matter. The temptation to sensationalize the material, to portray in jarringly graphic detail scenes of horrific violence, would likely have overridden any sense of moderation to the point where the film would not be able to secure anything less than an “R” rating, if not an “NC-17” rating.1 The more measured approach taken by the filmmakers has certainly paid off, however, as Sound of Freedom has gone on to gross a staggering sum against its meager budget, becoming one of the most successful independent films ever made.2
Nevertheless, the film has brought with it no small amount of criticism — though it is worth pointing out that most of the criticism has naught to do with filmmaking craft. Indeed, it proves difficult to argue that Sound of Freedom is anything other than an engaging, gripping, slow-burn crime thriller. The most significant criticisms of the film are largely directed at the film’s portrayal of what child trafficking actually looks like (as is usually the case with films purportedly “based on true events”).
The Story Behind the Story. Sound of Freedom presents a fictionalized story based primarily on the exploits of Tim Ballard, a former Special Agent with the Department of Homeland Security who operated undercover as part of the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team.3 In the film, Ballard is portrayed by Jim Caviezel, perhaps best known for portraying Jesus of Nazareth in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, and John Reese in Jonathan Nolan’s science fiction drama series, Person of Interest (2011–2016).
The narrative follows Ballard’s attempts to recover Miguel (Lucás Ávila) and, later, Rocío (Cristal Paricio), two children abducted from their father, Roberto (José Zúñiga), and sold into sex slavery. Ballard’s search takes him from the US–Mexico border to the jungles of Colombia, eventually putting him on the trail of El Alacrán (“the scorpion”) (Gerardo Taracena), a rebel leader with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who is using Rocío as his personal sex slave.4
Despite this setup, the film is surprisingly controlled and low-key. “Tasteful” is the word that comes to mind when trying to describe how the film handles both the horrific subject matter and the inevitable confrontation between Ballard and the rebel leader. The straightforward writing calls to memory Tony Gilroy’s largely forgotten early-aughts thriller, Proof of Life (2000), which similarly follows an expert kidnapping-and-ransom negotiator into the South American jungle in a “ripped-from-the-headlines” story.5
Sound of Freedom began life not “based on a true story,” but based on the convictions of director Alejandro Monteverde, who, along with cowriter Rod Barr, wrote a screenplay titled The Model as early as 2017. According to Monteverde, the original script stemmed from his personal research into child trafficking, and followed a “monied, free-wheeling guy” who, after discovering an underground network of sexually exploited children, began using his financial clout to buy the children and free them. In some ways, the story outlined for The Model presents a more traditional screenplay with better developed characters than Sound of Freedom. It was only through a producer attached to the project that Monteverde learned about Ballard, and the direction of the picture shifted entirely.6
Box Office and Controversy. Sound of Freedom is a bona fide hit for distributor Angel Studios, grossing over $150 million at the domestic box office against a slim $14 million budget. To put that in perspective, the film made more money in the United States than Fast X, which had a budget nearly twenty-five times that of Sound of Freedom, as well as the draw of an ensemble cast.7
Despite being an overwhelming success no matter how one looks at it, the film has courted no small amount of controversy. Curiously, the criticism surrounding this particular movie is focused less on what the film does, and more on what it does not do. Very few critics, for example, target the film for being poorly made, or the acting for being subpar. And this makes sense because it would be quite difficult to argue for either. Instead, most of the criticism comes from “anti-trafficking experts” who accuse the film of being “grounded in this sensational perspective of what child trafficking would be.”8 Which, personally, I find fascinating because the absolute last adjective I would use to describe the way this film is made, or its tone, is “sensational.” I have seen Taken (2008), by way of example, which deals with the same subject, a girl being taken by human traffickers and sold into sex slavery, and that film one could safely describe as “sensational.” The difference is that Taken does not purport to be based on factual events.
It would seem the criticisms of this variety stem from the fact that the story Sound of Freedom tells is not a “conventional” human trafficking story — which I think should be common sense considering this is a movie and not a documentary. Creative liberties are obviously going to be taken in order to structure the narrative. So, I can appreciate the perspective of people who deal with human trafficking cases on a daily basis, while at the same time suggesting that “sensational” is a bit of an overstatement when comparing Sound of Freedom to other movies that deal with the same material.
The other side of the controversial coin has to do with the label “QAnon.” In the spirit of transparency, I had to look up what this meant, and I frankly still do not understand it completely. Supposedly, it has to do with a “conspiracy theory” generally held by people with right-wing politics that suggests a cabal of Satanic ritualists are operating a global child trafficking ring in order to harvest adrenochrome in pursuit of an “elixir of youth.” Ignoring the fact that this whole idea sounds like a fantastic elevator pitch for a new thriller series, I fail to see how this film is connected in any contextual way to this movement.9 At no point does the film even remotely suggest anything of the sort. As best as I can tell, some people who apparently affiliate with a “QAnon” group liked the film and talked about it on social media — apparently this is enough to generate controversy.10
Look, “nonsense” might be the polite word for it, but I am going to use “stupid,” because it is actually appropriate. Once again, Taken is far more in line with this kind of mentality than Sound of Freedom — that movie literally ends on a yacht in Europe, the villain being an absurdly wealthy sheikh (can we say “one percent”?) with an army of bodyguards at his disposal. The fact that Sound of Freedom is somehow a lightning rod for this “discussion” is mind-numbingly moronic. It actually irritates me that I have to take up space in this review writing about this just to demonstrate that I have done my homework on this film. Kudos to Alejandro Monteverde, who somehow has the wherewithal to muddle through this ridiculous conversation every time he has an interview.11
Basic Human Dignity. If Monteverde had stuck with The Model, I suspect very few of these controversies would even be objects of discussion. Granted, the film would likely not have had the same kind of promotional buzz or made as much money, but it probably would have made the post-release fallout an easier pill to swallow. As it stands, Sound of Freedom is a well-made thriller, guided by the hand of a director who has won his share of prestigious filmmaking awards.
The film has an immense amount of respect for basic human dignity, and all without devolving into those preachy kinds of “all humans are made in the image of God” theological talking points that somehow manage to shallow out both what a human is and what the “image of God” is from a Scriptural standpoint. Frequently absent from those conversations is any discussion of how the image of God is, in fact, marred, and that humans do not, in fact, now completely fulfill God’s original design apart from Jesus, who is Himself the very image of God, as Paul explains in Colossians 1:15. To be biblically accurate, God’s people are currently being “conformed” to that new image (Romans 8:29) because they are a new creation and a new humanity in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17); and they do not fully “image” Him in that way until Christ appears, at which point they “shall be like him” (1 John 3:2) because in the resurrection He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21) and God’s people will “bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49).12 Until then, believers “wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). That is a biblical theology of what it means to be made “in the image of God,” not when Jim Caviezel says “God’s children are not for sale” in Sound of Freedom.13 But I digress.
In avoiding this kind of soapbox almost entirely, Monteverde delivers a film that, though lacking much character development, nonetheless has a very strong conviction about the sanctity of human life simply because life is life, and one is entitled to it by virtue of having it. Though so much of the discussion surrounding this film has to do with technicalities and portrayals, there is no debating that child sex trafficking is a major, real-world problem and one of the great evils of our time — that is not a fictitious detail made up for the purposes of filmmaking.14 These crimes are especially prominent in war-torn areas, such as Central America and the Middle East.15
Sound of Freedom is a film shot through with empathy, and frankly does not come at the subject matter from an exclusively evangelical Christian standpoint. Monteverde, producer Eduardo Verastegui, and Jim Caviezel have Roman Catholic roots, and Tim Ballard himself is a Mormon, just like Angel Studios was founded by a Mormon family, and evangelicals should be aware of that before championing the “theology” of this film. To stick theology where there is none is to do what the critics are doing to this film, which is to view it as anything other than a straightforward and well-crafted thriller with unusually strong convictions about human life and basic dignity. In this light, it is nothing short of a towering accomplishment that demonstrates masterful levels of restraint and thoughtfulness.
Take it for what it is, and Sound of Freedom is actually a very good film that nobody need argue about unless one is simply looking for a fight.
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in systematic theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.
“NC-17” is the highest rating handed out by the Motion Picture Association (MPA) film rating system to films distributed in the United States. The rating is a rare one, as it prohibits anyone under the age of eighteen from viewing theatrically the film that carries it. Considering that Sound of Freedom deals largely with the sexual exploitation of and violence toward children, there is a very real scenario in which a less restrained film receives a hard “R” or an “NC-17” rating. For more information on the MPA film rating system, visit their website: https://www.motionpictures.org/film-ratings/.
See William Hughes, “How the Hell Did Sound of Freedom Make $100 Million?,” The A.V. Club, July 20, 2023, https://www.avclub.com/how-the-hell-did-sound-of-freedom-make-100-million-1850662443.
A synopsis of Ballard’s history can be found on the website of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), a non-profit anti-sex trafficking organization that he founded: https://ourrescue.org/about-us.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) is a real-world Marxist-Leninist guerilla force originally established as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964. Detailed information and statistics about the organization can be found via Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation by following this link: https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/revolutionary-armed-forces-colombia-farc.
Proof of Life (2000) was written by Tony Gilroy and directed by Taylor Hackford. The film features a fictional South American country, Tecala, which serves as a stand-in for Colombia, where the production was originally slated to film before moving to Ecuador. The guerilla faction that Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) comes into conflict with is known as the Liberation Army of Tecala (ELT), and is very clearly based upon the FARC-EP. The film was inspired by an article in Vanity Fair (May 1998) titled “Adventures in the Ransom Trade,” written by William Prochnau, and the book Long March to Freedom (Random House, 1995) by Thomas Hargrove, who was held for ransom by the FARC-EP in 1994.
Eve Batey, “Sound of Freedom: The Wild True Story Behind 2023’s Most Controversial Film,” Vanity Fair, July 20, 2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2023/07/sound-of-freedom-child-trafficking-movie.
See Conor Murray, “‘Sound of Freedom’ Outgrosses Big-Budget Films ‘Fast X,’ ‘Elemental’ at the Domestic Box Office,” Forbes, August 1, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/conormurray/2023/08/01/sound-of-freedom-outgrosses-big-budget-films-fast-x-elemental-at-domestic-box-office/.
Erin Albright, quoted in E.J. Dickson, “Why Anti-Trafficking Experts Are Torching ‘Sound of Freedom,’” Rolling Stone, July 12, 2023, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/sound-of-freedom-child-trafficking-experts-1234786352/.
See the unclassified FBI bulletin, “Adherence to QAnon Conspiracy Theory by Some Domestic Violent Extremists,” June 4, 2021, released via the New York Times: https://int.nyt.com/data/documenttools/fbi-bulletin-on-q-anon-and-domestic-violent-extremism-june-4-2021/e587368b36687b6e/full.pdf.
For a look at “QAnon” statistics pertaining to Christianity, see Jack Jenkins, “QAnon Conspiracies Sway Faith Groups, Including 1 in 4 White Evangelicals,” Christianity Today, February 11, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/white-evangelicals-qanon-election-conspiracy-trump-aei.html.11 Tatiana Siegel, “‘Sound of Freedom’ Director Calls QAnon Labels ‘Heartbreaking,’ ‘Not True,’ Debunks with Details of Film’s Origins,” Variety, Augus 14, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/features/sound-of-freedom-director-controversy-calls-qanon-untrue-1235694549/.
Tatiana Siegel, “‘Sound of Freedom’ Director Calls QAnon Labels ‘Heartbreaking,’ ‘Not True,’ Debunks with Details of Film’s Origins,” Variety, August 14, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/features/sound-of-freedom-director-controversy-calls-qanon-untrue-1235694549/.
Scripture quotations taken from the ESV.
Sound of Freedom, directed by Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, written by Rod Barr and Alejandro Monteverde (Provo, UT: Angel Studios, 2023).
See the recent 2021 Federal Human Trafficking Report in Emma Ecker, “2021 Federal Human Trafficking Report Is Now Available,” Human Trafficking Institute, June 16, 2022, https://traffickinginstitute.org/2021-fhtr-is-now-available/.15 See Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” New York Times, August 13, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/middleeast/isis-enshrines-a-theology-of-rape.html
See Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” New York Times, August 13, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/middleeast/isis-enshrines-a-theology-of-rape.html.