Sound of Freedom: The Wild True Story Behind 2023’s Most Controversial Film

Sound of Freedom: The Wild True Story Behind 2023’s Most Controversial Film

Sound of Freedom: The Wild True Story Behind 2023’s Most Controversial Film

What is the Jim Caviezel–led action drama Sound of Freedom, exactly? A solid independent action film, which has made a surprising amount of money since its release on July 4? A moving true story about a real American hero? A dangerous gateway into misinformation and conspiracy? A gamble that’s paid off beyond anyone’s wildest expectations?

For director Alejandro Monteverde, the answer is simple: Sound of Freedom was a calling. He says he sat down to write the movie in 2017, after seeing a segment on an evening news show—”60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline, I used to record them all”—about child trafficking. “I watched it and I couldn’t sleep,” he tells me in an interview. “I knew about human trafficking. I just didn’t know about child trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

The next day, he felt he needed to write a film about the issue. With cowriter Rod Barr, he spun a fully fictional screenplay called The Model, about a monied, free-wheeling guy who discovers an underground trade in sexually exploited children, then starts buying the kids back into safety. “If I’d kept making a complete fiction, I wouldn’t have any of these attacks,” the Mexico native says somewhat ruefully.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, a producer on the still-nascent movie asked Monteverde if he’d heard of Tim Ballard, a former homeland security special agent who had started to make waves for a nonprofit he founded, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), which reportedly had a hand in rescuing trafficked children. “So I Googled him,” Monteverde says.

The online results were plentiful and included a glowing CBS News feature from 2014 on Operation Triple Take, a joint action between OUR and the Colombian government that reportedly rescued 123 trafficked people—55 of whom were children. “And I was like, Wow, I would love to meet this guy,” Monteverde said. “So I met him and I saw that his story surpassed my fiction.”

With Barr, he rewrote the script. Now the film would depict a heavily fictionalized take on the Colombian rescue from a few years before.

According to investigative journalist Lynn Packer, Ballard had long been seeking a wider platform for his and OUR’s activities. In 2013, he and a group of filmmakers sought funding from conservative political commentator Glenn Beck for a reality series that would depict the rescue of trafficked children. Though the series never came to fruition, some members of the production team made a documentary about Ballard, released in 2016 and called The Abolitionists, that gave Ballard even more mainstream legitimacy. Soon, he was speaking at organizations like Google.

But according to Erin Albright, an attorney and longtime adviser to anti-trafficking task forces, Ballard and OUR aren’t actually central to the international fight against human trafficking. “The majority of the [anti-trafficking] field views them as fringe,” she tells me. “They peddle sensationalism…and they fundraise off it.”

In 2018, when Monteverde was making his movie, these critiques weren’t part of the conversation. “I never in a million years imagined that this would be political,” he said of the film, which would become a Ballard biopic—albeit one that takes great liberties with the facts. After all, he says, “I saw the piece [on child trafficking] on the mainstream media … I always thought that this was going to be a film that we would all come together over.”

If this movie had been released shortly after it was made, that might have happened. Sound of Freedom was independently produced for a reported $14.5 million and financed mainly by a group of Mexican backers, according to the filmmakers. But like many other projects, the film lost its distributor when Disney acquired 21st Century Fox in 2019. Sound of Freedom remained on the shelf until it was picked up by Provo, Utah–based Angel Studios in 2023, with a plan to release the film in theaters around the country.

Several critical things happened in the years between the film’s wrap and its arrival in theaters. In a series that kicked off in 2020, Vice journalists Anna Merlan and Tim Marchman began a probe of Ballard and OUR, discovering “a pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading.” In a subsequent report, they alleged Ballard and his organization had engaged in “blundering missions—carried out in part by real estate agents and high-level donors—that seemed aimed mainly at generating exciting video footage.” (Ballard has not yet responded to Vanity Fair’s requests for comment. Though a representative from Angel Studios initially proposed an interview with Ballard, they later said they were unable to reach him to arrange a meeting.)

These reports were widely read and shared but were reviled as often as they were praised. That’s because of a second development: the QAnon set of conspiracy theories, which originated in 2017 and gradually gained notice by the mainstream in the ensuing years. The movement’s “core falsehood,” as The New York Times put it, asserts that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”

Around late 2020, QAnon started to use claims about child trafficking as an outreach strategy. As The New York Times reported at the time, adherents began “flooding social media with posts about human trafficking, joining parenting Facebook groups and glomming on to hashtag campaigns like #SaveTheChildren,” then moving “the conversation to baseless theories about who they believe is doing the trafficking: a cabal of nefarious elites that includes Tom HanksOprah Winfrey and Pope Francis.

“QAnon was really just ramping up as the movie was being shot,” says Mike Rothschild, author of a QAnon history book The Storm Is Upon Us. “Caviezel has had his Q-pilled awakening in the last few years, I think partially because of him shooting this movie.”

Due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, Caviezel was not available for comment. But news coverage of statements he’s made in recent years suggest that he shares the unsubstantiated QAnon belief that the wealthy and famous harvest the blood of kidnapped children in pursuit of a chemical called adrenochrome. According to the Daily Beast, Caviezel attended a conservative conference in 2021 in which he discussed his experience filming Sound of Freedom and claimed Ballard told him about child traffickers’ role in harvesting the chemical.

No claims like this appear in Sound of Freedom itself. Neither do any other conspiracies, or overt politics more broadly. Folks like Merlan, Marchman, and Rothschild call the movie serviceable, even enjoyable at times. But the combination of QAnon’s sudden interest in child trafficking and Caviezel’s remarks cast a cloud over the property long before it found a new distributor.

With a self-stated mission to “amplify light” and a business model based on crowdfunded projects, Angel Studios might seem an unlikely fit for a movie about something as dark and hopeless as the sexual exploitation of children. But according to CEO Neal Harmon, it’s a natural fit. “Sound of Freedom is first and foremost a thrilling hero’s tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat,” he tells VF. “When you leave, you leave with hope.”

Harmon isn’t just a film distributor. With his brothers—who are also Angel executives—he runs an advertising and marketing agency called Harmon Brothers, which has promoted brands like toilet odor spray Poo-Pourri and the defecation-assistance stool Squatty Potty. He’s also the cofounder of VidAngel, a company that engaged in a years-long legal battle with Disney and Warner Brothers over the practice of removing so-called “objectionable content” from those studios’ TV shows and movies, then streaming the altered properties to VidAngel’s customers. (A settlement was reached in which VidAngel agreed to pay the studios $9.9 million.)

According to Harmon, there’s little difference between selling a physical product like the Squatty Potty and “selling seats for a movie.” That seat-selling strategy is arguably one of Sound of Freedom’s most controversial elements. After Angel bought the film’s distribution rights, the company added a call to action to its credits. It encourages patrons to help “raise awareness” of child trafficking—but instead of donating to anti-trafficking groups or even directly to Ballard’s efforts, patrons are asked to “pay it forward” by purchasing additional tickets for the film. “We don’t have big studio money to market this movie, but we have you,” an out-of-character Caviezel says before a QR code appears onscreen.

Harmon declined to share how much money Sound of Freedom has made from actual butts in seats, and how much has come from the pay-it-forward revenue (which is tracked by a separate sales platform), but as of today, Sound of Freedom had made over $100 million—far in excess of all expectations. And rather than dropping with time, Sound of Freedom’s profits continue to grow week over week, Harmon and Monteverde independently confirmed.

It’s a level of success that frustrates trafficking survivor Jose Alfaro. Alfaro hasn’t seen the film, but he’s familiar with Ballard and OUR. He tells me that narratives like Sound of Freedom’s, which present trafficking as a result of kidnapping that sends victims across borders, “aren’t really representative of how more commonly this crime actually happens.” Merlan agrees, saying the movie contributes to the false perception “that the problem of trafficking is best addressed by kicking down doors and carrying children out.”

Perhaps surprisingly, even OUR concedes this point. The group writes on its own website that “while this type of human trafficking exists, it isn’t the majority,” and that “most trafficking happens through a manipulative grooming process,” not through the kidnapping scenarios portrayed in the film.

Though OUR touts Sound of Freedom on its website, the Ballard-founded organization isn’t mentioned at all in the movie. Instead, the film presents Ballard as practically a one-man army. In fact, Ballard left OUR “prior to launch of the film,” the group told Vice—though he was still with OUR as of this May when Davis County attorney Troy Rawlings closed a years-long investigation into the organization. On social media, Rawlings had warned people against donating to organizations claiming credit for child protection cases solved by Utah’s Davis County task force. (When reached by phone, Rawlings declined to comment on the record about his office’s investigation. OUR has not responded to multiple emails requesting comment.)

Merlan, Marchant, and Albright suggest that as promotion for the film kicked into gear, OUR may have opted to distance itself from a founder that’s been focusing his efforts on the media’s fringes. Three weeks ago, right-leaning outlet The Daily Signal posted a video in which Ballard sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Caviezel; the interview is titled, “Transgender Movement and Biden Border Policy Aid and Abet Child Sex Slavery, Tim Ballard Warns.” In the video, Ballard rails against “the woke left agenda” and says that “pedophiles have been pushing this agenda for decades.” A day after that video was posted, Ballard appeared on the podcast of Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk to discuss the widely debunked conspiracy theory of organ harvesting within child trafficking.

Even when Ballard isn’t central, the film’s promotion adheres to very specific party lines. This week, former president Donald Trump is hosting a screening of the film at his Bedminster, NJ golf club, with Caviezel, Ballard, and actor Eduardo Verástegui in attendance.

Monteverde won’t be there, though. He told Angel that he “did not want to participate in any event or thing that could be political,” and that he wouldn’t do interviews about the film “through any outlet that was associated with just one type of audience.” When asked about the interviews Ballard and Caviezel have given to right-wing outlets, he says, “When I see something like that, it’s very painful.”

Bad reviews are part of the business, and Monteverde knows that. “I don’t mind if people don’t like the film; I’m completely okay with that,” he says. “I don’t like some films, either!” But Sound of Freedom has been stirring up a lot of charged rhetoric, largely thanks to other folks associated with the movie. In a Fox News appearance last week, Ballard claimed outlets that have reviewed the film or its apparent politics unfavorably are also trying to “normalize sexual activity with children,” and declared that “pedophiles are salivating” at reviews that are anything less than positive.

Harmon makes a similar suggestion to me, albeit far more gently. He floats the idea that some criticism of the film might be coming from people who benefit from child exploitation, and “are not wanting public opinion to put a magnifying glass on this industry.”

Neither Harmon nor Ballard have done much to debunk one of the most pervasive claims made about the film—specifically, that Disney tried to “block” its release, ostensibly for nefarious purposes. According to a Newsweek fact check, Disney says the studio wasn’t even aware Sound of Freedom existed when it purchased its previous distributor, and after Angel mounted a crowdfunding campaign, it was able to purchase the rights to the film.

Ballard has specifically called out Rolling Stone, accusing it of “running interference for human traffickers and pedophiles.” Miles Klee wrote a scathing review of the film in the outlet.

Klee found Sound of Freedom “overly long, badly plotted, generally boring,” he tells me. More importantly, he saw it as “potentially a recruitment tool for the far right”—and wrote as much. His piece was published the Friday after the movie opened. By the following Monday, he said he was being targeted by far-right media outlets and harassed on social media by users who told him that through his work, he’d outed himself as a pedophile.

Alfaro says that he’s also been attacked by fans of the film. So have other trafficking survivors who’ve been critical of the film for its positive depiction of Ballard, or for the way it portrays the sex trafficking industry. “These people say that they care about trafficking,” says Alfaro. “But at the end of the day, you’re sitting there calling trafficking survivors pedophiles and traffickers because they don’t agree with this film.”

All of this is bewildering to Monteverde, who never could have imagined that his movie would be so financially successful—or mired in controversy. “I never intended to make a movie to glorify Tim Ballard. It was a movie to call attention to the problem, the subject matter, the darkness,” he says. “I always thought this was a movie that was going to bring people together.” Instead, it seems, Sound of Freedom illustrates divides that just can’t be crossed.