This month, conservatives have lauded the breakout success of Angel Studios’ new thriller film “Sound of Freedom.” Released on July 3, it has held its own in the box office against major blockbusters, even surpassing many of them. Deadline reports that, as of Wednesday, it has brought in an impressive $53.4 million nationally.
Evidently, relatively little of that income has come from the people watching the movie in Denver. At the Regal UA theater on 16th Street, “Sound of Freedom” spent most days relegated to a single 2:35 PM matinee – a far cry from the treatment it got at other Regal Cinemas branches in Lakewood and Centennial. At the showing on Friday, July 7, in Denver, I counted around four or five attendees, not counting yours truly.
“Sound of Freedom” has not gone unnoticed by Republicans in other parts of Colorado. In the days surrounding its release, it was directly promoted by the official Republican Parties of Douglas County, Montrose County, and La Plata County.
The DougCo GOP shared an article that calls it “possibly the most important movie this year.”
The same is true among conservative activists in Colorado: Lindsay Datko, an organizer for JeffCo Kids First, a group that has agitated the recent moral panic around LGBTQ topics in schools, promoted the film to other members in a Facebook post.
Even the less overtly political Archdiocese of Denver recently sent out a newsletter, writing that the film “help[s] bring more awareness to one of the most ignored but prevalent issues of our time.”
In Colorado and beyond, the popularity of “Sound of Freedom” among Republicans has shot toward the stars: CNBC recently reported that former U.S. President Donald Trump is set to host a screening at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.
So what’s the big deal about this movie, anyway? And why do conservatives seem to love it so much? Last week, I went to the theater to see for myself. (Spoilers are ahead, if you care about such things.)
A Real Live Action Hero?
“Sound of Freedom” tells the dramatized story of Tim Ballard, the founder of the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). Initially an agent of the Department of Homeland Security specializing in taking down viewers and distributors of child sexual assault material, Ballard (played by Jim Caviezel) rescues a young boy following a successful sting operation, who then pleads with Ballard to save his sister too. Ballard becomes fixated on this, traveling to Colombia to pursue the sex trafficking ring responsible, resigning from the DHS when they cancel his assignment over concerns on funding and jurisdiction, and ultimately descending into the jungle to infiltrate a rebel group in hopes of finding his young charge.
The film portrays Ballard as a classic action-hero maverick cop, constantly pushing back at the regulations of a bureaucratic system that clashes with his moral compass. At the start of the movie, Ballard takes initiative in attempting to gain a pedophile’s trust by pretending to also be a pedophile. He successfully convinces his supervisor to let him go through with the unorthodox plan, allowing his target to go free and set up a meeting with a trafficked child, so that DHS can arrest him and rescue the child.
But as his personal crusade takes him further from home, Ballard has to fight tooth and nail with his superiors to even be allowed to travel to Colombia in the first place. Eventually, they simply pull the plug anyway when costs get too high.
Even after departing from his official position, Caviezel’s Ballard still has trouble holding his emotions back. Throughout the film, he frequently interacts with pedophiles and traffickers in a friendly capacity in order to lure them into his snare. In these scenes, Caviezel portrays a man who seems to simmer with rage beneath his stoic exterior. At one point, Ballard enters a tense standoff with one of the traffickers, standing between his opponent and a frightened child, and refuses to back down even when a gun is put to his head.
The climax, in which Ballard kills a rebel leader in a quick, bloodless action sequence, serves as emotional catharsis. Ballard is finally able to take out his vengeful anger. In this way, he could be seen as a surrogate for the disgust and fury that frequent scenes of violence against children evoke in the audience.
The relatable action hero portrayal shows Ballard in a light that’s palatable and exciting for many viewers. His exploits seem larger than life – but during the credits, a montage plays of photos taken from one of the sting operations shown in the film, including pictures of the real-life counterparts of the arrested traffickers.
While some of the events really happened, the film is as embellished as any Hollywood production. In a blog post, Angel Studios said the film “takes certain creative liberties for storytelling purposes.”
Some advocates have raised concerns that the sensational, action movie depiction of child trafficking may distort public perception of the issue, and could make it more difficult for real victims to have their voices heard.
Tim Ballard is not just portrayed as a hero, but also as a religious figure. Throughout the film, he’s likened to a saint: the boy he originally rescues gives him a necklace bearing the name and likeness of Saint Timothy, which he in turn received from his sister, who hoped it would protect him. The narrative implication of this serendipity is that Ballard is being called by divine providence to rescue “God’s children” from their captors. Like Saint Timothy and many other biblical characters, Ballard goes on to forsake the comfort of his job and his life at home to carry out this mission.
Ballard’s portrayal as both badass and saintly in a major movie, which raked in $14.2 million on its opening weekend, is excellent PR for both Operation Underground Railroad and Ballard himself. According to Vice, Ballard once listed “Sound of Freedom” as one of several avenues through which he intended to bolster his public persona and bring in massive revenue as a paid public speaker.
What’s QAnon Got To Do With It?
The media reviews of “Sound of Freedom” have been highly divided. Many outlets, including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and The Washington Post have claimed the film is linked to an outlandish and deadly conspiracy theory, one which has become a fixture within right-wing fringe communities in the past several years
QAnon is a conspiracy theory claiming that the world is secretly ruled by a nefarious cabal of elite Satanists. Adherents believe that members of this cabal are pedophiles who orchestrate the global trafficking of children. The theory first began to gain traction during Donald Trump’s presidency, with one core tenet being that Trump and his appointees were engaged in a secret war against this cabal.
Since “Sound of Freedom” centers on child sex trafficking and is prominent in right-wing circles, critics often speak of it in the same breath as QAnon.
But it’s more complicated than that. Many proponents of the movie have pointed out that it doesn’t contain any overtly QAnon-linked messaging.
One of those people was Kristi Burton Brown, former chair of the Colorado GOP. Guest-hosting KHOW radio’s Dan Caplis Show earlier this week, she said, “That’s the way that real true stories and crisis points get ignored because liberal media and commentators and people who know nothing go on TV and start telling everyone, ‘Oh, if you agree with this, you’re a conspiracy theorist. This is just made up by people who believe in QAnon,’ which is just the latest thing they throw around. And no relation whatsoever to any type of conspiracy theory. [Child trafficking is] well documented.”
Child sex trafficking is a real phenomenon, not just a conspiracy theory. No critic has denied this reality. While QAnon does discuss child sex trafficking in-depth, discussing child sex trafficking does not inherently make a movie QAnon.
QAnon is also well documented: it first started gaining steam on the message board 4chan in October 2017 before spreading out to other corners of the internet. Production for “Sound of Freedom” started much earlier than that, in 2015. The film was finished in 2018, but subsequently shelved following Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox in 2019. Given this timeline, it’s unclear how big a role, if any, the conspiracy theory could have played in the film’s development.
With that said, it is difficult to discuss the movie without at least touching on QAnon. During multiple recent promotional interviews, lead actor Caviezel has used “Sound of Freedom” as a springboard to enthusiastically promote key elements of the theory. In one recent interview with Steve Bannon, Caviezel instructed viewers to “research [QAnon] and see if it’s true.”
At another point, Caviezel claimed labs in Ukraine are linked to human trafficking by an “adrenochrome empire,” referring to the sedimentary QAnon idea that cabal members torture and kill children to extract a fictional narcotic substance called adrenochrome.
Angel Studios has tweeted that “Caviezel’s personal statements are his own.”
Ballard himself has a complicated relationship with QAnon and other conspiracies. Ballard recently parted ways with OUR, which fully disavows conspiracy theories, to little fanfare. This was confirmed in an email from OUR to the Colorado Times Recorder.
But during his tenure, Ballard had shown he’s personally more open to conspiracy theories – at one point, he lent credence to the baseless theory that the furniture company Wayfair was secretly trafficking children.
More recently, Ballard appeared in an episode of the podcast Conservative Daily, hosted by Joe Oltmann, a Colorado election denier who has previously called for Gov. Jared Polis to be executed. David Clements, another prominent election denier, joined that episode as co-host.
During this interview, Ballard pushed deeper into QAnon territory, claiming that many trafficked children are sold to “witch doctors” who use their body parts for sacrifices that he called “Satanic” in nature.
“They take these little babies and they sell the babies for, you know, pedophilic, you know, assault videos. They sell them for witch doctory,” Ballard said. “It’s crazy. It is. But it is absolutely the real thing. They do sell their blood. They do. You know, they’ll cut their genitalia off and sell that to people as some kind of strange, bizarre, Satanic, grotesque sacrifice to the gods.”
The Colorado Times Recorder initially contacted OUR for comment on this statement and was informed that Ballard is no longer with the organization. Ballard had not mentioned this during the interview. CTR has since reached out to a spokesperson for Ballard but has not received a reply. This story will be updated with any response received.
Ballard claims that he is merely reporting what he has seen during his work, but both he and the organization have a history of being a less than credible source. Vice News has previously reported that many of his and OUR’s exploits are difficult to actually confirm or deny.
In one case, they were outright fabricated. Ballard claimed credit for rescuing one trafficking survivor. However, she testified in court that she had in fact escaped on her own, with no involvement from OUR or other organizations. Ballard also reportedly exaggerated several elements of her story.
At the time OUR accused VICE of “comb[ing] through years of information in an effort to find any, even minor, discrepancy, and to twist anything found into a negative portrayal of an honorable organization.”
Pushing Pathos Towards Political Ends
Even if one disregards QAnon altogether, the film and its advocates have an agenda – and it isn’t just to save children.
“Sound of Freedom” isn’t shy about pushing for social and political change. At times, it brings its message to the viewers with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. At more than one point, the camera lingers on a close-up shot of Caviezel’s face as he, still in character as Ballard, rattles off statistics on trafficking or pleads on the moral imperatives of taking action.
The veneer of a fourth wall is broken down entirely in the post-credits scene, in which Caviezel addresses the audience directly to urge them to spread the film’s message to others. A QR code appears on the screen, which takes viewers to a link where they can “pay it forward” and buy tickets for others.
“I imagine you’re feeling sad or overwhelmed or even fearful,” Caviezel says. “But living in fear isn’t how we solve this problem.”
Far-Right Political Goals
The film all but states its intended goal: to create an experience that moves its audience emotionally, then inspires them to act upon those emotions after they leave the theater. Many promoters of the film, including Ballard himself, have used rhetoric to direct that impetus toward far-right political ends.
One of these ends: tightening enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico Border. In the past, Ballard has frequently advocated for Trump’s border wall, going all the way up to the White House during Trump’s presidency to argue that forcing migrants to go through legal ports of entry will help border security to catch traffickers.
“I mean, one of the rescues you’re going to see in Sound of Freedom is a rescue that happened at the port of entry, the Calexico, California, west port of entry,” Ballard told Clements on Conservative Daily. “They filmed it exactly where it happened in real life. And the kid was rescued because of the wall, because the wall forced the trafficker into the port of entry where trained people found the kid. It’s a very basic concept. The only compassionate concept for children under the border is for enforcement. Big, big walls.”
There has been much debate over the correct way to reform U.S. immigration policies. Title 42, a Trump-era policy that was continued and ultimately ended under Biden, blocked large numbers of immigrants under the pretext of pandemic concerns. In 2022, Human Rights First reported over 13,000 incidents of violent crime against migrants and asylum seekers blocked or sent back to Mexico by Title 42 – including kidnapping and sexual assault.
Additionally, Trump’s wall has a worse track record than its proponents would suggest: the Washington Post reported last year that, in places where the wall had been built, smugglers were able to breach it on multiple occasions using inexpensive power tools.
Ballard has also used the film’s subject matter to levee bigoted rhetoric against the LGBTQ community. He’s claimed that “trans ideology” is a covert attempt to normalize pedophilia and exacerbate child trafficking by turning teens into “sex addict robot kids.”
“I used to be able to arrest people for providing and distributing pornographic material to children, the likes of which is now being provided to children by teachers under the guise of sex education or tolerance or whatever,” Ballard told Clements. “And now you can have a 13, 14 year old kid consent to gender mutilation, can consent to puberty blockers, things that would destroy their bodies. And in some states now, parents could be punished. Kids could be removed if the parents don’t gender affirm. Now, it’s bad enough this whole, you know, what could happen to these kids’ bodies. But there’s a worse problem that we’re not seeing. And that is once you allow children to consent and you’ve already sexualized them, so they’re already kind of sex addict robot kids. Well, guess what’s happening next? Who’s going to stop the kid from consenting to a sexual relationship with a 50 year old pedophile?” [Emphasis added.]
Just about everything Ballard mentions here has been addressed by LGBTQ advocates and activists. First and foremost, he claims tolerance of the LGBTQ community is a slippery slope to the normalization of pedophilia. This plays into bigoted stereotypes, and it’s nothing new: conservatives have spent years smearing gay and trans people as child molesters. This has resurfaced most recently as a wedge issue intended to galvanize conservative voters: in particular, many have claimed that teachers who introduce LGBTQ-related ideas into curricula are “sexualizing children.”
Ballard’s claim of “mutilation” is also not new. In anti-trans circles, the term is used to pejoratively refer to mastectomies, also known as top surgery, and gender reassignment surgery. Neither are performed on children as young as he claims: in almost all cases, mastectomy is reserved for patients aged 16 and up, and gender reassignment for 18 and up. Puberty blockers are allowed for younger teens, but they don’t “destroy” the bodies of people who take them like Ballard claims – while they may have side effects, potentially including lower bone mineral density, these side effects are reversible.
Finally, Ballard’s claim that “kids could be removed if parents don’t gender affirm” in some states is based on rumors about a law that was allegedly proposed in California. These rumors have been debunked. The proposed bill made no change to existing parental custody laws.
Ballard is not alone in using “Sound of Freedom” to push anti-LGBTQ bigotry. Jenna Ellis, a former Trump lawyer, promoted the film on social media, saying that “The same pedophiles sexualizing your kids in school don’t want you to watch this movie about the global crisis of child sex trafficking.”
In this quote, Ellis implies that the same people “sexualizing your kids” by teaching them about LGBTQ people also have a hand in international sex trafficking.
Research indicates that LGBTQ youth actually have a higher risk of being sex trafficking victims, but not because of the way they are educated. This is more likely due to intolerant family members: LGBTQ youth often end up homeless and vulnerable because family members kick them out, or create such a hostile environment that they run away from home.
Ellis has a long history of similar inflammatory marks, and recently supported a bill in Uganda mandating the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”
As mentioned above, Lindsay Datko of Jeffco Kids First – one of many groups in the modern parental rights movement, which has exacerbated backlash against LGBTQ people – also shared a trailer for the film. Jeffco Kids First did not respond on Datko’s behalf to an email inquiring as to why she promoted the film, or if she or other members see any connection between its subject matter and their activism.
However, after this article was initially published, Datko made another Facebook post to the group in response, claiming that the Colorado Times Recorder had ‘lead to further libel’ of her and the group. The post noted that she had also posted a trailer for “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning” to Jeffco Kids First.
At the time of publication, “Sound of Freedom” is not currently being shown at Regal UA Denver Pavilions. You can still get tickets at various times at the Southglenn and Colorado Mills locations. Just be aware of what it is you’re buying.