What you need to know about the hit faith-based thriller fueling conspiracy theories

Jim Caviezel stars in Sound of Freedom, which unexpectedly topped the July 4th box office over Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

Jim Caviezel stars in Sound of Freedom. (Everett Collection)

The faith-based child-trafficking thriller Sound of Freedom has become one of the biggest, most unexpected box-office hits of the year, thus far ranking in $53 million (and counting) and even outdueling the Walt Disney-backed Indiana Jones and the Dial of DestinyHarrison Ford’s farewell to his signature fedora-wearing adventurer on a Fourth of July holiday face-off.

The film’s underdog success story isn’t the only reason it’s making headlines, though.

There have been outlandish QAnon-centric conspiracy theories spread and refuted, a screening planned by former President Donald Trump and a link made between the film and a years-old congressional testimony by Ashton Kutcher.

Here’s everything you need to know about 2023’s sleeper hit.

What is Sound of Freedom about?

Originally filmed in 2018, Sound of Freedom is inspired by the life of Tim Ballard — a former special agent with the US Department of Homeland Security. In 2013, he founded Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), an organization that works to prevent the sex-trafficking of children. “I was working on a couple of cases that fell outside the jurisdiction of the United States, and I had to quit my job to finish the cases,” Ballard said during a recent appearance on Fox News. “One of the first operations was this enormous hit in Colombia. It made national news, and then the producers came to us and said, ‘This sounds like a movie.'”

In the film, Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) plays Ballard at the tail end of his DHS career, worn down by a series of soul-draining trafficking cases involving migrant children. When he spearheads an operation at the Mexican border, he’s able to free one child, but not the boy’s sister, Rocio (Cristal Aparicio), who is still in jeopardy in Colombia. With the approval of his wife, Katherine (Mira Sorvino), Ballard travels to South America as an independent agent and goes deep undercover in order to find the missing girl.

Caviezel as Tim Ballard in Sound of Freedom.

Caviezel as Tim Ballard. (Photo: Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection)

That journey takes him into the Colombian jungle, where he discovers that Rocio is being held prisoner by a rebel leader named Scorpio. Along with another anti-trafficking American expat, Vampiro (played by character actor Bill Camp), Ballard must infiltrate the compound and figure out a way to spirit her to safety.

That may sound like it sets the stage for some Rambo-style firepower, but Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman notes in his review that Ballard isn’t the next Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris, writing: “It’s not a glorified Rambo movie or a Netflix thriller pretending to be serious. When the delivery we’ve been seeking arrives, it feels earned.”

How was it made?

Caviezel and Javier Godino in a car in a scene from Sound of Freedom.

Caviezel and Javier Godino in a scene from Sound of Freedom. (Photo: Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Sound of Freedom is produced by Mexican actor and filmmaker Eduardo Verástegui, who has openly discussed how his Catholic faith played a role in his desire to see the film made. “I promise to God, I want to dedicate my entire life to save children,” Verástegui recently told the Christian Post. (In 2020, Trump named Verástegui an adviser to the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, and the producer has reportedly been weighing a run for higher office in Mexico.)

Rod Barr and Alejandro Monteverde co-wrote the script, with Monteverde taking on directing duties. As for casting, Ballard told the Deseret News in 2018 that Caviezel was his first choice to play his onscreen alter ego, even though they didn’t closely resemble each other. “There was something special about Jim,” Ballard said, specifically citing the actor’s star turn in the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo. “It was important to us that whoever played this role had to be someone who willfully did it with God and knew that that light had to come out because we didn’t want this to just be a movie; we wanted this to be a movement .”

For his part, Caviezel called the project “the second most important film I’ve ever done since The Passion of the Christ.” Sorvino, who has spoken out against human trafficking in her role as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, expressed a similar calling when talking to the Washington Examiner about the film recently. “We just can’t accept it anymore,” she said. “We can’t let the sweet children of the world be exploited in this way and hurt in this way.”

In an interview with the Wall StreetJournalVerástegui said that Sound of Freedom was acquired by 20th Century Fox — which had successfully released several faith-based movies, including 2014’s Son of God — for a release in Latin America. But after the studio was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2019, the producer bought the film back and explored an independent release. “This is a movie about child trafficking,” he said. “It’s not a Disney movie.”

After five years in limboSound of Freedom was acquired by Angel Studios in March. Founded in 2021, the Utah-based media company started as a streaming service before moving into theatrical distribution with the film His Only Son.

Jordan Harmon, who runs Angel with his three brothers, told the Wall StreetJournal that opening on July 4 was a way of indicating to audiences that they plan to tell “faith-friendly” stories that also “amplify light” to a broader audience. (Prior to founding Angel, the brothers, who are Mormons, ran VidAngel, a streaming service that ran versions of Hollywood movies that removed nudity and other “offensive” content. The company was shut down after being sued for copyright infringement by Disney, among other studios.)

Why is Sound of Freedom controversial?

Caviezel with three other men in a scene from Sound of Freedom.

A scene from Sound of Freedom. (Photo: Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Sound of Freedom has received some mixed reviews, particularly in regards to its historical accuracy. Ballard’s organization has been criticized for embellishing its role in anti-trafficking cases, with several former OUR partners speaking out about their experience. (Ballard is no longer with OUR, the organization announced this week.)

Meanwhile, Caviezel made headlines in 2021, when he appeared to espouse QAnon conspiracy theories around human trafficking during a right-wing gathering.

Considering one of the most prominent QAnon theories centers around the idea that Satan-worshipping global elites run the world and are involved in a global child trafficking ring, several reviewers have tied the film directly to the far-right political movement. “At last, QAnon’s camp appeal gets the cinematic exploration it demands,” wrote Jezebel’s Rich Juzwiak, whileRolling Stone calls it a “QAnon-tinged” thriller.

The kerfuffle over the film’s alleged QAnon ties came to a head this week when a conspiracy theory that the mega-movie chain AMC Theaters was intentionally sabotaging Sound of Freedom screenings (by evacuating screenings, making the sound inaudible or shutting off air conditioning). Both the exhibitor’s president and the film’s distributor publicly shut down the claims.

“Sadly, conspiracy theorists are so prevalent in America,” CEO Adam Aron wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “So much garbage information is spread. More than ONE MILLION people have watched Sound of Freedom at AMC Theatres. More than at any other theater chain on the planet. Yet people falsely claim otherwise. It is so bizarre.”

Brandon Purdie, head of theatrical distribution for Angel Studios, told Entertainment Weekly“We want to make it clear these rumors are not accurate,” adding that AMC has been “an outstanding partner,” and the chain was actually adding the film to more screens this weekend.

Sound of Freedom has also taken its knocks for a new report that its lead investor, executive producer Andrew McCubbins, pleaded guilty in 2020 to an $89 million Medicare fraud scheme.

It was also announced Thursday that Trump will host a screening of the film at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club next week.

“Liberal media outlets like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter have refused to review the film,” Trump’s announcement read. “While publications like Rolling Stone, Washington PostCNN and the Guardian have trashed the film and mocked the millions of moviegoers who purchased tickets to screenings.”

Echoing similar sentiment, a Twitter user who goes by KanekoaThe Great called out critics of the film with a viral post resurfacing actor Ashton Kutcher’s 2017 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he called attention to international child sex-trafficking networks.

“Unfortunately, instead of embracing the film’s message, the corporate media has launched a smear campaign against it,” they wrote on Twitter. “Why would the corporate media invest so much effort in vilifying a film that tackles the critical issue of child sex-trafficking?”

How did Sound of Freedom outearn Indiana Jones?

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) rides again in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

Harrison Ford rides again in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. (Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Studios)

Angel announced the film’s July 4 release date in May, when the promotional campaign for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was kicking into gear with its launch at the Cannes Film Festival. The James Mangold-directed film opened in 4,600 US theaters on June 30, while Sound of Freedom was booked into 2,600 theaters four days later. Dial of Destiny had a $24 million opening day, but those numbers fell to the $12 million range by July 3. That same day, Variety reported that Sound of Freedom had already generated $10 million in presales, the first indication that an Independence Day upset might be brewing.

By the end of July 4, both studios estimated that their respective films had earned $11.5 million, although Disney revised Indiana Jones‘s grosses to $11.7 million, apparently giving it the win.

But Angel repeatedly announced an additional $2.6 million gross for Sound of Freedom, bringing its total up to $14.2 million. Those additional dollars reportedly came from the company’s “Pay It Forward” crowdfunding platform, which allows audiences to donate extra money that reportedly goes toward funding free tickets for other moviegoers.

The film has now grossed over $53 million.

What’s the future for Sound of Freedom?

Angel Studios CEO Neal Harmon and Trisha Harmon attend the Utah premiere of Sound of Freedom.

Angel Studios CEO Neal Harmon and Trisha Harmon attend the Utah premiere of Sound of Freedom. (Fred Hayes/Getty Images for Angel Studios)

Angel has aggressively advertised Sound of Freedom directly to faith-based and conservative audiences, counting on those appeals and word of mouth to enhance the film’s box-office prospects over the next month. (Caviezel’s Passion of the Christ director, Mel Gibson, gave it a thumbs-up via video.)

Speaking to the Washington Examiner in the wake of claiming victory over Indiana Jones, Angel Studios CEO Neal Harmon called the film a “grassroots movement” and shouted out its A+ CinemaScore. “We’re the top-rated film in America, and we’re going to see word-of-mouth spread even further going into the weekend,” he boasted. “The world needs to see Sound of Freedomand we know that our biggest competitive advantage — our incredible fans and investors — are going to make sure that happens.”

This story was originally published on July 6, 2023, and has been updated.

Sound of Freedom is playing in theaters now.

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