‘The film the woke Nazis don’t want you to see!’ How the culture wars made Sound of Freedom a blockbuster (2023)

It is the movie the “woke Nazis at CNN, the Washington Post and the Guardian” supposedly don’t want you to see, as well as the plucky little indie that has beaten giant franchises such as Mission: Impossible and Indiana Jones at the US box office. But although Sound of Freedom has, as of this weekend, taken nearly $178m (£139m), it is a particularly unlikely “surprise smash hit of the summer”. Had it been released five years ago, as originally intended, this mid-budget thriller might have sunk without trace. Instead, it has struck gold in these politically polarised, conspiracy-theory-addled times, boosted by Donald Trump, Fox News and the religious right, not to mention adherents of the wacko QAnon conspiracy theory. After its triumphant US run, it is now set for release internationally, including in the UK next week.

Ostensibly based on the true story of a US agent’s rogue mission to rescue trafficked children from Latin America, Sound of Freedom plays like a mix of Sicario, Taken and Rambo, albeit with a more earnest and subdued tone. But it is events off-screen that have put it in the public eye – in particular the activities of its distributors, its lead actor, Jim Caviezel, and the real-life figure he portrays, Tim Ballard.

It was Caviezel who cemented the film’s connections to the notorious QAnon. The 54-year-old actor is best known for his portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ – and the messianic role seems to have rubbed off on him. On an episode of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, former colleagues testified to Caviezel’s propensity to ramble, proselytise, discuss and imitate Adolf Hitler and display alarming degrees of Islamophobia and cultural insensitivities on set, which led to some describing him as the “Cavortex”.

Often described as a “Christian thriller”, Sound of Freedom makes a few references to its protagonists’ faith – hence the takeaway line: “God’s children are not for sale!” – but contains no allusions to QAnon conspiracy theories. While promoting the film, however, Caviezel has repeatedly slipped in references to the chemical compound adrenochrome, a key component in QAnon mythology, according to which it is extracted from tortured or sexually abused children by a secret “deep state” paedophile ring comprising leftwing politicians, Hollywood types and Jewish financiers such as George Soros and the Rothschilds. “It’s an elite drug that they’ve used for many years,” Caviezel said on Steve Bannon’s podcast. “It’s 10 times more potent than heroin and it has some mystical qualities as far as making you look younger.” (Adrenochrome is a genuine chemical compound, produced by the oxidation of adrenaline, but there is no evidence for any of QAnon’s claims.)

“Go to any QAnon rally and you’ll see someone holding a sign saying ‘Google adrenochrome’,” says Annie Kelly, a postdoctoral researcher on conspiracy theory. “It’s kind of the first step to red-pilling the masses.” Adrenochrome was not part of the original QAnon mythology, which began as a series of vague, cryptic chatroom posts by a supposed high-level government insider codenamed Q, who claimed in 2020 that Trump was planning to rid Washington of a leftwing satanic cabal led by Hillary Clinton. As with many aspects of the conspiracy theory, Kelly explains, it was the “bakers” – the online community who decode Q’s posts – who introduced the adrenochrome element.

QAnon did not even exist in 2015 when work began on Sound of Freedom, says its director and co-writer Alejandro Monteverde, who does not subscribe to the conspiracy theories. The 46-year-old Mexican American, whose previous features Bella and Little Boy incorporate faith-driven elements, saw a report about child trafficking on television in 2015, he explains over the phone from Argentina, where he is promoting the film: “I felt called to write a movie about this darkness.” He began writing a fictional story on the subject, but then his co-producer, Eduardo Verástegui, told him to check out Tim Ballard.

Ballard, a Mormon from Utah and allegedly a former homeland security special agent, is the founder of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), an organisation that claims to have rescued hundreds of children from sex traffickers, usually by way of commando-style raids. “When I met him, I realised that his life was more exciting than the fiction I was writing,” says Monteverde. “Long story short, we ended up partnering on this.” It was Ballard who suggested casting Caviezel, whom Monteverde subsequently met for dinner. “He shared with me that he had adopted three children from China,” says Monteverde. “I realised that this subject matter is very close to his heart. He even teared up when we were talking.”

Sound of Freedom was filmed in 2018, on a budget of about $14.5m, but was caught in limbo when its distributor, 21st Century Fox, was acquired by Disney in 2019. The Covid pandemic prolonged the delay. Then, in 2023, distribution rights were acquired by Angel Studios, a Utah company with a record of faith-based content (the company started out as a service that filtered violence, profanity and nudity from mainstream content – until it was sued by Hollywood studios for copyright violation).

Angel Studios has been adept at generating support for its products through unconventional means. A crowdfunding campaign to help market Sound of Freedom raised $5m from 7,000 “Angel investors”. One of its ploys was to include a message from Caviezel over the closing credits, in which he implores viewers to “pay it forward” by buying up to 100 advance tickets to give to other viewers (at $15 each) via an onscreen QR code, “to show your support of ending child trafficking”. It is not known how many of those tickets translated into actual viewers, or how much the scheme contributed to Sound of Freedom’s box office, although Monteverde puts the figure at “less than 10%”.

Religious and rightwing media groups have also done much to promote the movie. Caviezel, Ballard and Verástegui have done the rounds of rightwing and faith-based podcasts, while outlets such as Fox News, Brietbart, the Christian Post and Catholic World News have helped spread the word, alongside celebrity supporters such as Mel Gibson, who was an executive producer on the film.

‘The film the woke Nazis don’t want you to see!’ How the culture wars made Sound of Freedom a blockbuster (2)

There has also been substantial support from the political right wing. Ballard was already a hero to them; in 2019, Trump invited him to the White House, where Ballard expressed support for Trump’s plans for the southern border wall: “It’s the only compassionate thing to do if you care about children.” In 2020, Trump appointed Ballard co-chair of his Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking. Last month, after Sound of Freedom had taken $41m in its first week, Trump hosted a screening of the film at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, attended by Bannon, Ivanka Trump and other figures from Make America Great Again.

Also present was Verástegui, whom Trump had appointed to his Advisory Commission on Hispanic Prosperity in 2020. Verástegui, a former telenovela actor and boyband star, is thought to harbour political ambitions of his own. In November, he organised a Mexican version of the far-right Conservative Political Action conference, attended by Jair Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, among others. The House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, also hosted a special screening this July and interviewed Caviezel and Ballard on stage.

‘The film the woke Nazis don’t want you to see!’ How the culture wars made Sound of Freedom a blockbuster (3)

Politicising what ought to be a non-partisan issue appears to have been a deliberate strategy. Underpinning much of the rightwing media coverage of the film has been the narrative that this is a story “the left doesn’t want you to hear” – it was a column in Breitbart News, the far-right internet platform, that talked about the “woke Nazis” of the “far-left” press – and that those who question or criticise the film are “wittingly or unwittingly running interference for human traffickers and paedophiles”, as Ballard claimed on Fox News last month.

Beyond the genuine problem of child trafficking, the US right has increasingly latched on to “the children” and their protection as a focus for culture-war wedge issues: anti-abortion legislation, anti-trangender agendas, the “woke” content of school curriculums and libraries, border wall and anti-immigration policies. Anyone seen to be opposing this dogma faces accusations of being a “groomer” – a term previously applied only to paedophiles.

As the Breitbart piece put it: “Sound of Freedom says: ‘Protect the kids.’ In this obscene era of exposing little children to drag queens, gay pornography, homosexuality, flashers and the irreversible puberty blockers and surgeries that permanently mutilate children, that message directly threatens the left’s political power.”

This is in step with QAnon’s broad narrative, says Kelly, that “there are terrifying things being done to children, but the people in charge are deliberately suppressing this information because they want it to continue”. A popular Facebook hashtag for conspiracy theory content is #SaveTheChildren. In this world, “children” are invariably conceived more as a pure, innocent concept than as a group of individuals. “They’re the perfect victim to advocate for, because they’re completely abused and perfectly silent,” says Kelly. “They represent whatever you want them to.”

Trump’s government did introduce anti-trafficking legislation, but then so did the Obama administration (and, more recently, the Biden administration). Trump’s status as “protector of the children” is tenuous, given his introduction of policies separating immigrant children from their parents at the southern border – the same children Sound of Freedom claims to be protecting.

Ballard’s claims and methods have also come into question. The Vice reporters Anna Merlan and Tim Marchman began factchecking Ballard and OUR’s stories in 2020. “We found pretty conclusively that there was a pattern of what I would call exaggeration,” says Merlan. “A lot of times, we could find that they were, for instance, involved in a mission [to rescue trafficked children] in the sense that they had donated money to a local law-enforcement agency, who then went out and used it for some part of their work.”

Monteverde makes no bones about using dramatic licence in his script, but the events that inspired the film happened very differently in reality, says Merlan. In the third act, for instance, Caviezel’s Ballard poses as a health worker to single-handedly rescue a trafficked girl from a drug cartel deep in the Colombian jungle. Something similar did happen, says Merlan, except it was around the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.

“OUR was acting on information from a psychic named Janet, who lives in Utah,” says Merlan. “This psychic had visions that many children would be found in this region on the border, so OUR created this fake medical detail and went into this village to look for these children. No children were found. It ended with a group of older villagers with shotguns asking OUR and the folks they were there with to leave, because they had created a large amount of panic and concern.”

Another young woman whom Ballard repeatedly claimed OUR had “rescued” was discovered to have freed herself. In July, it was reported that Ballard had left OUR, after “an internal investigation into claims made against him by multiple employees”. He is rumoured to be considering entering politics.

The emphasis placed on the macho, action-packed, “white saviour” approach to rescuing trafficked children by Sound of Freedom and groups such as OUR has been deemed unhelpful by charities and organisations active in the sector. “The intimation that they need to kick down doors and carry people out of sex trafficking is often incomplete, misleading and infantilising to survivors,” says Merlan. “It presents a confused picture of what trafficking looks like, what it is and how to help people get out of it.” Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, the chair of the United Nations’ fund for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery – who is a survivor of trafficking – has described Sound of Freedom as “a dangerous portrayal of what trafficking is”.

‘The film the woke Nazis don’t want you to see!’ How the culture wars made Sound of Freedom a blockbuster (4)

In reality, trafficking is just as likely to happen to older women and teenagers, especially gender-nonconforming and LGBTQ+ people. Rather than kidnapping, child-trafficking cases often involve the victims’ family members. According to the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, 68% of children are trafficked for forced labour rather than sexual exploitation. But such nuances tend to be obscured by the “raid and rescue” narrative. In fact, survivors and aid workers who have questioned Sound of Freedom’s narrative have been attacked.

Monteverde has distanced himself from the partisan controversies around his film and says they pain him deeply. “I’m not into politics and anything that divides. I’m an artist and a storyteller,” he says. “I made a movie for the faith-based audience, for the people of no faith and for everyone in between … I’m just happy that the audience showed up.” The next test is whether audiences show up outside the US culture-war circus.

Either way, Sound of Freedom has made a handsome profit at a time when Hollywood franchise fare seems to be faltering at the cinema – which means there will be more where it came from. There has always been a steady stream of faith-based content in the US, but Sound of Freedom may well supercharge the sector. There is interest in a sequel, says Monteverde.

Caviezel’s next project also appears, finally, to be getting under way: The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection, directed by Mel Gibson. Caviezel has promised it will be “the biggest film in history”. A year ago, that would have sounded ridiculous; today, not so much.

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