“Sound of Freedom” Is a QAnon Fever Dream

“Sound of Freedom” Is a QAnon Fever Dream

Sound of Freedom Is a QAnon Fever Dream

The third-biggest movie of the summer is an action thriller about child sex trafficking that eagerly caters to right-wing paranoia.

Culture / August 7, 2023

Sound of Freedom Is a QAnon Fever Dream

The third-biggest movie of the summer is an action thriller about child sex trafficking that eagerly caters to right-wing paranoia.

“Sound of Freedom” Is a QAnon Fever Dream

The third-biggest movie of the summer is an action thriller about child sex trafficking that eagerly caters to right-wing paranoia.

Chris Lehmann
Sound of Freedom
(Angel Studios)

As mid-century icons Barbie and Oppenheimer battle for summer box-office dominance, launching countless think pieces on gender, war, and gender war along the way, a very different sort of dramatic narrative has stormed red-state theater screens: Alejandro Monteverde’s Sound of Freedom, a plunge into the ugly, predatory world of child sex-trafficking, as luridly imagined by the American right. Completed for a modest $14.5 million budget in 2018, the unlikely blockbuster already grossed more than $150 million at the box office, outpacing mainstream crowd-pleasers such as Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning–Part 1 and The Flash. The film’s subject matter has also drawn an ardent reception from figures in the QAnon movement, along with the (increasingly indistinguishable) conservative power elite. Donald Trump pronounced his approval after a private screening at his Bedminster, N.J., golf compound, while Elon Musk, Ben Shapiro, and Mel Gibson have all offered endorsements. 

After the obligatory “based on a true story” declaration fades, Sound of Freedom gives a highly fictionalized account of the anti-trafficking crusade captained by former Homeland Security official Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel), who until recently headed up a global nonprofit devoted to the cause, Operation Underground Railroad. The film depicts Ballard’s decision to quit his government job, which unduly constrained his desire to do more to rescue the global victims of trafficking. Ballard comes to embrace his new calling as he tries to locate and rescue two Honduran children, Miguel and Rocio, who were swept up into a trafficking ring extending north to the United States and south into Colombia. After intercepting Miguel in a trafficker’s truck at the US-Mexico border, Ballard travels to Colombia—Cartagena, Bogota, and the cartel-held jungles of the south—to stage a daring rescue of Rocio. Along the way, he arranges a mass arrest of traffickers he’s lured into an elaborately staged sting, on the promise of supplying more than 50 children to an elite island hideaway, in the Jeffrey Epstein vein. 

The conflict and intrigue coursing through Sound of Freedom is not all that different from standard suspense-thriller fare, with overwrought asides in the film’s dialogue to remind viewers that the kidnapping of kids for sexual entertainment is very, very bad. When Ballard fields a question about what drives his mission, he replies, “God’s children are not for sale”—a refrain that doubles as the slogan of Operation Underground Railroad. Likewise, when Ballard puts the same question to his interlocutor—a reformed former cartel fixer turned child rescuer—he recounts a debauched evening that culminated in the revelation that the prostitute he was with was actually 14, not 25, as she had claimed. He was consumed by “this tsunami of darkness,” he explains, which forced the realization upon him that “I’m the sadness in her eyes. I’m the darkness, and I know the darkness has to die.”  On the verge of suicide, he appeals to God, who sanctions his new mission to purchase kids in the sexual slave trade and then set them free: “When God tells you what to do, you cannot hesitate.”

It’s easy to see how this didactic vision of a demonic global network of powerful child predators keys directly into QAnon folklore—and how the ironclad moral certainty of Ballard and his allies reflects back the deliriums of apocalyptic redemption now convulsing the conspiracy-minded American right. In its conventional thriller storytelling—which resembles the schematic vigilantism of late-career Liam Neeson transported into the longest imaginable episode of Law and Order: SVUSound of Freedom serves chiefly to offer action-film catharsis, replete with drug-compound raids and gunfire-heavy car chases, as the solution of first resort to the world’s debilitating plagues of darkness and sadness. It also offers plenty of vicarious moral identification for the Q-pilled legions of the MAGA right, with Ballard as the maximal ethical prooftext: What would it be like if you were forced to walk away from your government pension in order to face down a network of monstrous evil? In this respect, Monteverde’s film is a 21st-century gloss on the message of Left Behind—the retribution-themed end-times action fable by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that stands as one of the best-selling fiction franchises in history. 

Several reviews of Sound of Freedom have noted that it’s fairly light on explicit religious content, but that interpretation only holds if you’ve overlooked the leading trends in contemporary evangelical belief—as well as much of that tradition’s history in America. Indeed, evangelical moral panics have long pivoted on the narrative of rampant child endangerment at the hands of demonic forces driving the fallen world further downward and hellward. The great antebellum anti-Catholic scares all stressed this sort of depraved sexual endangerment of children (together with even grislier fates) conducted by the sinister alien encampments of priests, monks, and nuns in the holy American Protestant Republic. Later phantom outbreaks of “white slavery,” which typically cast Asian entrepreneurs of unthinkable evil as the lead villains, served the same xenophobic agenda amid the early social and religious upheavals of the industrial age. Come the 1980s, the same narrative once again took hold of the quasi-therapeutic wing of evangelical culture, now hypnotized by the nonexistent epidemic of satanic ritual child abuse. 

The overlapping panics of rampant child-sex trafficking and high QAnon paranoia have extended and refined this tradition in an age of extremely online moral certainty. Indeed, QAnon took off in earnest as a mass persuasion during the Covid lockdown, converting the popular child-endangerment hashtag #Savethechildren into unhinged fever dreams of liberal-led cults of sexual predation, organ-harvesting, and cannibalism. 

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In contrast to this lurid suite of fantasies at the font of today’s rightwing politics, Monteverde’s film seeks to give its own sensationalized account of child sex trafficking the look and feel of documentary realism. The film’s opening credits run over what looks to be grainy black-and-white surveillance footage of child-catchers running wild in the streets—and its closing credits appear over real-life video images drawn from the island raid Ballard helped orchestrate in Colombia. Yet anti-trafficking advocates note that stranger-led kidnappings are quite rare; child victims are overwhelmingly recruited by people they know, such as family members and school officials.

What’s more, the camera-ready raids carried out by Ballard’s group have yielded decidedly equivocal results—critics contend that they can dangerously heighten demand for child sex, bringing more kids into the path of crushing trauma. One participant in an Operation Underground Railroad sting in the Dominican Republic, staged mostly to supply pilot footage for a reality-TV project Ballard was looking to launch, writes that after a group of 26 potentially trafficked kids were rounded up in the weapon-heavy operation, they went into the supervision of an area adolescent care group. When the group discovered that it lacked the basic resources to tend to the kids’ needs, it released them less than a week later

Sound of Freedom never detains itself with such messy real-world outcomes. The film has also lately been swamped with other unwelcome developments from the real world, including Ballard’s separation from Operation Underground Railroad in the wake of still-unspecified internal HR complaints from employees, and the news that a credited funder of the film was himself arrested on felony child kidnapping charges. So it’s obviously best, for the sake of both popular appeal and movement discipline, to keep the story as simple as possible. Ballard’s obsessive quest to find Rocio and reunite her with her Honduran family bears scant resemblance to how the actual Colombia raid played out, but it serves both to cement Ballard’s own reputation and to reassure the film’s audience that family reunions are the inevitable outcome of Operation Underground Railroad’s work—an especially manipulative bit of agitprop in view of the frequency of family complicity in child trafficking. 

The film’s righteous politics of cultural restorationism is conveyed in scores of smaller touches as well. The casting of Mira Sorvino—herself an outspoken and high-profile victim of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predations—lends the film an additional veneer of documentary seriousness, especially since her role is so thinly imagined that her most eloquent snatch of dialogue comes via text message. Otherwise, the movie succumbs to the directorial temptation to render its villains in the most cartoonishly broad fashion imaginable. Gustavo Sanchez Parra, the actor playing the Cartagena bar proprietor who serves as the chief liaison in procuring the children for the Colombia raid, delivers a note-perfect imitation of Gary Oldham’s notorious scenery-and-neck-chewing star turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. As Ballard sets about killing the Colombian drug lord who has purchased Rocio—and who naturally goes by the name of Scorpion—a choir-boy soundtrack of redemptive quasi-prayer kicks in. The movie isn’t even content to let fairly mundane and thuddingly self-evident plot points pass by without didactic underlining: When Ballard rings off a frustrating call from his DHS boss telling him to pack up and go home, he needlessly exclaims, “Bureaucracy–shit!”

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Monteverde has claimed that he had no intention of larding his film with flourishes of QAnon messaging, but it strains credulity to think that the subject never came up in talks with Ballard, who has long been aligned with the movement, or on set with the far more active Q-touting Caviezel. (Caviezel has since claimed in an interview with Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk that he didn’t know about QAnon while the movie was being filmed, but in language teeming with QAnon movement code.)  But the larger point here is that Monteverde’s auteurist claim simply doesn’t matter to a right-wing movement base already primed to find telltale breadcrumbs of cabal-engineered deep-state predations in everything from Covid vaccine plans to 5G networks to Wayfair furniture listings. To quote another cinematic fable of resurgent heartland virtue: If you build it, they will come. 

In a special message running after the film’s closing credits, Caviezel implores moviegoers to buy up additional tickets on a “pay it forward” basis—an ostensible bid to make the anti-trafficking campaign go still more viral, but also an important factor in padding Sound of Freedom’s box office numbers. (As I entered the suburban Maryland mall theater holding the screening I attended, a woman in front of me marveled to her companion, “Oh wow, there’s hardly anyone here.”) The true-believing Caviezel, a hard-right Catholic best known for his title role in Mel Gibson’s 2004 blood-and-sandals epic The Passion of the Christ, has built much of his public image around fables of his own ostracism at the hands of the debauched secular lords of Hollywood. Making the most of his time in the spotlight, he concludes his very special message in full proselytizing mode. He tells filmgoers that with their help, “We can make Sound of Freedom the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the 21st century”—i.e., the foundational text in a crusade to end the practice of child sexual enslavement. But in this context, we would all do well to keep clearly in mind just what sort of civil war Cavaziel and his comrades in arms want to make sure happens next.

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