Nearly twenty years ago Jim Caviezel starred in one of the most controversial movies of all time… that also became the highest grossing independent release ever made, a record The Passion of the Christ (which has a sequel on the way) still holds to this very day. Throughout the years Caviezel’s leading man status never really took off as he faded out of the public spotlight. But he would reemerge in 2018 as the star of the new christian based film Paul, Apostle of Christ. The film would be a moderate success while Caviezel embraced his deep rooted christian values in both his personal and professional life. Those values would make public headlines in 2021 when Caviezel would join the select group of people who publicly denied that Covid was real while also discussing unproven theories about adrenochroming, which as far as I understand it is the blood harvesting of children. Theories such as that were the basis for the QAnon movement that seemed to sweep the nation in the wake of the 2020 elections. And it is those views and theories that Jim Caviezel believes so passionately that have turned his latest film Sound of Freedom into not just an unexpected massive hit, but also the most recent entrant into the controversial movie hall of fame. So as we launch a new series where we delve into some of the most controversial events in movie history, we thought why not start with one that is currently dominating headlines as we find out just why this film about child sex trafficking is so controversial.
To understand why a film that preaches the significance of being against human trafficking, we must first understand who the film is about, and that is a man by the name of Tim Ballard. In 2013, Ballard founded the non-profit organization Operation Underground Railroad which is an anti-sex trafficking organization that Ballard has said has rescued thousands of sex trafficking victims. And that is where the controversies begin. According to several in depth reports by Vice from 2020 through the present, they found that the stories told by Ballard and the organization aren’t necessarily truthful. In one instance Ballard claimed that O.U.R had a critical role in rescuing a girl in New York, yet the actual case, reviewed by Vice in court documents, shows that the girl actually heroically escaped her trafficker on her own with no involvement of O.U.R while Vice also interviewed several law enforcement agencies who O.U.R has partnered with who have said that their relationship with the organization was insubstantial.
But the most sensationalized stories are ones that are reportedly not in the United States but overseas. This is where stories of O.U.R members literally wrestling children out of the arms of sex traffickers come from. These stories all sound great on camera and in print, but the fact is they are claims from an organization that had been proven to, at best, stretch the truth. For many, it is claims like these that are said to deliberately mislead investors, of whom have donated millions of dollars to O.U.R over the years.
Despite being a massive hit in the year 2023, Sound of Freedom started its journey all the way back in 2015 when Ballard wanted a movie made about his organizations exploits. It would be another two years when director Alejandro Monteverde would see a story on an evening news show about child trafficking that would prompt him and co-writer Rod Barr to write a fictionalized script titled The Model. Monteverde would meet a producer who would ask if he had ever heard of Tim Ballard, after googling him and being impressed with the stories he read online he asked to meet the man and realized that his quote unquote real life far surpassed the fiction he had written. So he and Barr went off and rewrote their script based on one of Ballards supposed missions to Columbia.
It was Ballard himself who requested Jim Caviezel portray him in the film after being impressed with his performance in The Count of Monte Cristo. Once the script was right and financing was in place from several sources including longtime O.U.R backer Tony Robbins, the film would go before cameras in 2018.
Once the independently financed film was finished shooting, it came time to find a way to get it out to the masses. The producers actually had set up a solid distribution plan with the major studio 20th Century Fox, yet at the time Fox was about to be purchased by Disney and in 2019 when the sale was complete, Disney simply shelved the title. Although Ballard and CEO of Angel Studios claim that Disney knew of the film but tried to block its release with what some believe was a not so subtle way of implying that the studio was protecting child sex traffickers. Of course the fact of the matter is far more simple: Disney simply had no idea the film even existed nor that they owned it! A Disney spokesperson said that the film was made as an international deal with 20th Century Fox before Disney bought the studio and thus when the merger was complete, they had a lot of properties that they simply didn’t know about.
From there Angel Studios would launch a crowdfunding effort in an attempt to purchase the rights to the film from Disney, which they did. Once the faith based studio owned the film, they began a marketing campaign to make sure the film could reach the widest audience possible. This included adding a tag to the end of the film where star Jim Caviezel came on screen to spout the films tagline “God’s children are not for sale” while explaining that the only way to market the film without big studio money was to “pay it forward” and purchase tickets for the film so other people can see the movie… with no mention of donating to anti-child trafficking charities or organizations.
After years of sitting on the shelf, the film was ready to hit screens across the country. Angel studios would pick the prime July 4 weekend slot to release the film. What could possibly be more American than an anti sex trafficking film with an all American hero at its core. The film was set to open against Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and was heavily marketed to the faith based community with former President Donald Trump even giving the movie a plug. That marketing worked wonders as the film opened with a solid $14.2 million and a fourth place finish. But what happened after was far ore impressive: the film just kept gaining and gaining. Its second week of release would see a $19.6 million take while word of mouth propelled the film to finish its third week with a second place finish and $27.2 million in box office receipts, shocking many as that number wasn’t much lower than Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning Part One’s opening weekend take. Sound of Freedom had not just become a sleeper hit, it had become one of the biggest box office stories in history.
Of course with all the great stories being written about its box office success, just as many were being written about the actual content of the film and more importantly its relation to the extremely controversial QAnon movement that had swept the nation in the past few years with the core belief that a group of satan worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media with names such as Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and even Pope Francis as members. Many people saw the film as being a pro-QAnon film due to its lead star, Jim Caviezel being a firm believer in the beliefs put forward by the group. At this point more and more reviews began popping up online. When it was first released reviews skewed positive because it was mostly Christian based websites who were posting their reviews and as the film is from a Christian based production company and tells a very Christian based story, they were always bound to be positive. But when the film became the milestone it has become, more and more reviews began popping up that weren’t as favorable. This would lead to the next controversy the film saw as Ballard would be interviewed on TV and claim that the bad reviews were put forth by reviewers who were trying to normalize sexual activity with children and that pedophiles were salivating at any review that was less than positive for the film. Those are direct quotes from Ballard from a recent Fox News appearance. Co-Founder of Angel Studios Neal Harmon even asserts that some of the criticism for the film is coming from people who benefit from child exploitation and don’t want public opinion to put a magnifying glass on that industry. Again, that is a direct quote from one of the heads of Angel Studios.
The next controversy would surround that “pay it forward” pricing. While no one is refuting the amount of money the film has pulled in, many are questioning how many actual butts have been in those sold seats. When asked that exact question, Harmon declined to answer, which would prompt many to ask if the film is actually as successful as it seems or does it just have some very wealthy backers who want to see the film succeed at any and all costs? To play devil’s advocate, I don’t think it matters! The film has pulled in that money, whoever paid that money, they paid it for a film they truly believed in. We have seen stories before of actors and actresses buying out entire theaters of their films and giving away the tickets to audience members, this “pay it forward” thing is really no different. While having Jim Caviezel urge people to buy tickets for their friends during the end credits is weird, it’s still just marketing.
The next controversy for the film is that it simply isn’t a realistic portrayal of child sex trafficking. It plays off of the sensationalized stories told by Ballard and his organization Operation Underground Railroad. Although O.U.R is never mentioned in the film, the story simply follows Ballard as he travels to break up a sex trafficking ring in Columbia, South America. Actual survivors of child sex trafficking have come out and flat out called the film dangerous for its depiction of what sex trafficking is. They say that what the organization O.U.R and the film Sound of Freedom does is show that sex trafficking is the result of kidnappings that send children across international borders but that is generally not how it is actually done. This is something that Operation Underground Railroad has even conceded to on their website saying that “while this type of human trafficking exists, it isn’t the majority. Most trafficking happens through a manipulative grooming process.” Again, if I am to play devil’s advocate, a movie is meant to be entertaining to watch, no matter the subject matter, and so you can not fault the filmmakers for choosing a story that focuses on a more thrilling and action packed story. Of course, a film that purports to be factual and as important as it is does bear a certain responsibility to its audience and the public at large to get certain things right, which according to many, Sound of Freedom does not. Many say that if the film really cared about shining a light on the realities of sex trafficking, they would have highlighted that many victims are not anonymous to their captors but are romantic partners, relatives and in some tragic occasions are even trafficked by their own parents.
Despite all of the controversies in the lead up to the films release and in the actual film, which most critics agree isn’t actually all that controversial in its content. They say it is more of a straight up Taken style thriller with shades of its religious roots thrown in. Jim Caviezel may have certain beliefs, but they don’t come across in the movie. Since the films release however, the controversies have not stopped. On July 18, 2023 Vice reported that Tim Ballard had left Operation Underground Railroad after an internal investigation into claims made against him by multiple employees. According to their sources a complaint was filed against Ballard after an overseas trip and that the subsequent investigation lead to Ballard resigning from the organization he founded. Since he resigned under what can only be described as very curious circumstances, Ballard has gone on to co-found a new organization called Spear Fund and immediately went on news outlets to pan handle for donations, which is a bit strange when one of things his previous organization has been accused of is mishandling the donations they receive. Ballard would then go on his instagram page to tell people to expect more lies about him by the quote godless leftist media who he believes are attacking him in an attempt to help human traffickers. A common trope, blame them with blanket statements while they come at you with researched facts.
Another controversy that has recently popped up is one that bears mentioning but can’t really be attributed to the film per se. Angel studios enlisted crowd funding in order to purchase the film rights from Disney, in doing so they received investments from 6,678 people. When it comes to crowdfunding, any one can give money, there is no background check. Well, on July 23, 2023, one of those backers named Fabian Marta was arrested for accessory to child kidnapping. The two victims were under the age of 14 and were allegedly held against their will in an apartment owned by the suspect.
So, even though that particular controversy may not specifically related to the actual movie, it is just this weird pattern of news that have dominated headlines since Sound of Freedom became the massive hit it has become. Whether it is an organization founded by a man with questionable credentials and a penchant for telling grandiose stories aimed to pump their public profile, a ticket selling campaign that has worked quite well with many questioning the validity of those ticket sales, a main star who has taken to promoting unproven and dangerous theories in the public to a fan base that seems to have long ago lost touch with fact vs fiction and backers of the film being embroiled in their own illegal activities. The headlines have almost become a bigger story than the actual movie.
But I guess at the end of the day, Sound of Freedom is a movie and as a movie it is designed to do two things: make people talk and make money, and Sound of Freedom has done both so well that it made more money than the Tom Cruise starring Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning Part One at the domestic box office. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad press, so even if a lot of the stories printed about the film are not super positive, the fact that people can’t stop talking about the movie, is putting butts in seats… we think!