Sound of Freedom is effective and emotional as a portrayal of terrible real-world crimes, but its message is compromised by its own fabrications of the truth.
Sound of Freedom was directed by Alejandro Monteverde and stars Jim Caviezel as Tim Ballard, a government agent who arrests child traffickers and other consumers of child pornography. But when he realizes that he’s yet to actually save a single child, he begins devoting himself to infiltrating these rings to find and rescue the children in captivity. Eventually, with the help of former cartel accountant Vampiro (Bill Camp), he sets up an entire sting operation in Columbia to rescue 54 children that are being put up for sale.
I’m getting straight to the point with this one, because if you didn’t already know what Sound of Freedom is, the premise alone has probably already made you wildly uncomfortable. And, to the surprise of no one, the film itself is, in fact, wildly uncomfortable. In more than a few instances, it’s borderline soul-destroying, for reasons I really, really don’t need to spell out. But does it tell such a dark story well? Yes, it does. In fact, Monteverde’s direction is about as tasteful as I could imagine it possibly being, while still plunging you fully into such filthy territory.
For one thing, Sound of Freedom is PG-13, which means it doesn’t explicitly show you any of the actual terrible “acts” at their absolute worst. But it does show you almost everything else, including a healthy amount of the leadup to said acts, the children being dragged away and hit, and many shots of their faces as they brace themselves for what they know is about to happen to them. But that’s as far as Sound of Freedom goes in terms of on-screen horrors, because that’s as far as it needs to go. The film is obviously upsetting and requires a strong stomach to watch, but it never feels exploitative or sensationalized.
The score from Javier Navarrete is a perfect example of this kind of balance. It’s very prominent in its hopeful, tense, and depressing swells, in a way that would come across as sensationalist if it was just a little louder or more extravagant. But it displays considerable restraint, enhancing a terrible moment without shoving its disturbing nature in your face. Sound of Freedom also moves at a pretty brisk pace while still dwelling on the emotions and traumas in the many scenes where it needs to. It really doesn’t have any action outside of one fight, but even that’s shot in a claustrophobic fashion that’s completely devoid of any awe or grandeur. Granted, the entire climax is essentially a suspense-thriller, but it’s still never “fun.”
Say what you want about Jim Caviezel – I certainly will in a minute – but his subdued but still blatantly pained performance lends the exact right level of weight to the story and character. But the standout for me is Bill Camp as Vampiro, a character with a very rough history and gruff exterior that need to be juggled with his noble motivations and softer side. Camp handles all of those demands with such incredible care and tenderness that I can easily call his performance one of the best of the entire year so far. All of the child actors in Sound of Freedom have my utmost respect as well. I don’t know what they were told on the set, and I hope whatever it was got handled in the gentlest way possible. Whatever the case, I bought every second of fear from them, whether or not they even say a single word to show it.
It’s with great displeasure that I say that Sound of Freedom is based on true events … the key phrase being “based on.” Which is to say, not only is child trafficking obviously a real, disgusting problem in the world, but Tim Ballard is a real person who has rescued many trafficking victims, both children and adults. As such, there’s clearly an importance to the subject matter Sound of Freedom is tackling, which adds even more frightening layers of realism to an already frightening film. As for what the movie has to say about the subject … well, it takes the very bold stance that child trafficking is bad. That’s mostly it.
There are glimpses of the larger systemic problems that allow it to go on and how focusing on the perpetrators usually leaves the kids behind, so the film isn’t completely one-dimensional. But it’s a really simplistic look at the issue, albeit one that’s executed remarkably well. It has nothing new to offer outside of spreading awareness that the issue is even happening at all or that it’s as widespread as it is … assuming it truly is that widespread.
Which leads us to the elephant in the room. Now, I want you to sit down for this, because it’s going to blow your mind: a film based on a true story contains fabrications of the truth. For instance, the main operation of the film had a lot more victims involved (including adults), children are shown to have been lured into captivity in ways that were apparently never confirmed, and the entire climactic mission never even happened at all. In the past, my stance on accuracy in movies like this has been that nailing the spirit of the story can excuse embellishing some facts.
But not only have I been getting sick of films not having enough faith or skill to tell their true stories … well, truthfully, but when the story is about something this severe, I see this level of fabrication as an injustice. Sound of Freedom is trying to raise awareness of child trafficking in an attempt to fight against it, which is obviously a noble cause. The credits even contain a speech from Caviezel stating exactly that. So, when the facts become distorted or just plain made up, that throws into question the very statistics that are shown to us and how huge this crisis actually is. You can’t play fast-and-loose with something like this. If you do, people may dismiss the very notion that these kinds of terrible things are happening as frequently as they are.
But apparently both Ballard and Caviezel are fans of playing fast-and-loose with the truth, because Sound of Freedom has also gotten heat for their public support of QAnon conspiracy theories. I have zero tolerance for dangerous belief in obvious garbage, so I won’t hesitate to call this behavior abhorrent. But I find myself able to separate the art from the artist enough to appreciate Sound of Freedom’s merits on their own, probably because I didn’t know any of this going in. It helps that the film itself, in isolation, promotes none of these conspiracies, and I honestly have no idea how it could be construed in any way as right-wing propaganda. The line “God’s children are not for sale,” is as close as it gets, but it makes sense within the film’s context.
Yes, I take issue with how Sound of Freedom falsifies several events. But considering how many other biographical films do this, I can’t use that as evidence of some conservative conspiracy movement. Plus, it’s not like child trafficking isn’t a real issue, and it’s not like the film glorifies the United States as the brave, clean nation that isn’t at all a part of the problem. (That fact is heavily glossed over, but it’s at least acknowledged.) Sound of Freedom certainly doesn’t make defending it easy because of how it does make things up, and it’s totally fair to slam it for that. I just think some people are projecting a far worse narrative onto the film that only exists outside of it.
From an “objective” standpoint, I consider Sound of Freedom to be a good movie. It’s directed remarkably and delicately, it’s acted powerfully, and it tells a story that’s simple but very easy to get invested in. But when you hold it up to factual scrutiny, the waters become grayer. Still, I think it’s worth at least one watch, because it’s touching on something that, again, is a real tragedy in the world. My hope is that people will be smart enough to take away the right messages that the film provides in a vacuum, while knowing how to discern truth from fiction. That’s a rather steep ask for humanity, I’m aware, but that hope is all I’ve got.
Sound of Freedom is now showing in US theaters.