I Watched the Movie of the Moment. Not That One. (Or That One.) - 8 minutes read
The movie that I, like a million other women, really wanted to see this weekend was Barbie. A celebration of friendship! Of girlhood! Of the color pink! But my editor had a different idea: Would I go see that movie about child sex trafficking? The one that a lot of people online are angry about?
“Uh, sure,” I replied. I am a team player.
When I arrived at the Tysons Corner AMC in McLean, Virginia, on Sunday, the lobby was filled with people wearing fuchsia body-con dresses, blond wigs, and thigh-high boots. None of these happy moviegoers, however, was heading in the same direction as I was. Instead, my theater contained a few dozen somber-looking people who had elected to see a $15 Sunday-afternoon screening of one of the most disturbing films of the year.
Sound of Freedom, which came out on the Fourth of July, follows a man named Tim Ballard, who quits his job at the Department of Homeland Security to personally rescue two Honduran children from a sex-trafficking ring in Colombia. Ballard is a real person with “extreme biceps, extreme blue eyes, and extreme bleach-blond hair,” as my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in 2021. He really did start an organization that conducts sting operations to free people from traffickers. But according to one journalistic investigation by Vice, his nonprofit, Operation Underground Railroad, has exaggerated the details of some of its international rescues as well as its role in domestic law enforcement.
Read: The great (fake) child-sex-trafficking epidemic
Sound of Freedom was attracting controversy long before its release. Finished in early 2018, the film was bought by Fox, and then when Disney acquired Fox it immediately shelved the film. Right away, that gave the movie a kind of forbidden, subversive appeal. Eventually, the distribution rights were sold to Angel Studios, a company in Utah that produced the Christian historical drama The Chosen. Since Sound of Freedom started showing in theaters, some viewers have alleged instances of sabotage intended to prevent them from seeing the film. This week, Sound of Freedom broke $100 million in revenue. Last week, former President Donald Trump held a screening at his golf club in New Jersey, where, channeling Paris Hilton, he called it “the hottest movie anywhere in the world.” On Tuesday night, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy held a screening of the movie for members of Congress.
The film’s critics argue that the movie exaggerates the prevalence of child exploitation in a way that helps advance QAnon conspiracy theories about a satanic ruling elite that molests children and feasts on their blood. But the movie’s fans say, This is the film the Democratic elite doesn’t want you to see!
Sound of Freedom is neither of these things. It’s fine—not great but not terrible, either. It doesn’t make any reference to “deep state” bloodsucking or congressional sex cabals. It’s a straightforward, if plodding, action movie about a man on a righteous quest—with zero character development and way too many close-ups of people either crying or smoking cigars.
Although the movie doesn’t depict anything particularly graphic, the subject of child abuse is still difficult to watch dramatized on the big screen. It was upsetting. But so was talking about it afterward with other audience members, many of whom seemed convinced that some significant number of their countrymen condone child trafficking. Sound of Freedom, in other words, is just the latest flash point in an apparently endless culture war that encourages Americans to believe the absolute worst about one another.
In the movie, Ballard is played by Jim Caviezel, who also starred as Jesus in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, and has himself dabbled in the dark whimsy of Q. In 2021, he spoke at a right-wing conference in Oklahoma, where he warned attendees about “the adrenochrome-ing of children,” an absurd theory that says global elites are using a chemical harvested from kidnapped children to keep themselves looking spry. At one point in the movie, asked why he was so determined to rescue the kids, Caviezel’s character pauses, and his eyes well up with tears. “God’s children aren’t for sale,” he says. My theater broke into applause and shouts of “Amen!”
From the June 2020 issue: The prophecies of Q
The movie has united religious conservatives and Trump supporters, as well as a small sampling of the chronically paranoid—or at least it appeared to have done so at my showing. (I chose this particular theater because, when I looked online, a lot of people had bought tickets—probably because McLean has more right-leaning voters than many other places in the Washington, D.C., area.)
Kate Cox, a retiree from McLean wearing little flower earrings, told me before the movie that she was “a pro-life Catholic” concerned about the border. “That’s exactly what this is about,” she said. “They’re taking these people and selling them into sex slavery.” Cox and her girlfriends were also worried about the fentanyl coming in from Mexico: How hard would it be to put up a wall?
“And the homelessness!” added Peggy, a friend of Cox’s who declined to share her last name. “Cities are falling apart.” Cox nodded. “Say what you will about Trump, and 99 percent of it’s true,” she said, “but this didn’t happen under Trump.”
Unlike Barbie, with its huge marketing budget and corporate partnerships, word of mouth seems to be the main attendance-driver for Sound of Freedom: Most of the people I spoke with on Sunday had bought a ticket on a loved one’s recommendation.
“One of my friends told me to see this movie,” Nicole Gutierrez, a Swiss native who lives in D.C., told me. “This is a much bigger business than we think it is. Hollywood, politicians—they’re all involved.” She pulled out her phone to show me a text that her friend had sent a few minutes earlier. “Maybe you know what it means.” Her friend had sent the letter C, followed by an eye emoji, followed by the letter A. “I think he means the CIA,” I said. Gutierrez raised her eyebrows. “Everybody’s involved,” she said. “The White House, of course.”
In a bonus clip after the credits, Caviezel encourages viewers in a whispery voice to scan a QR code and buy a ticket for someone who can’t afford it. “We can make Sound of Freedom the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 21st-century slavery,” he says, likening the film to the novel that helped inspire the 19th-century abolitionist movement. After that, as the lights came up, a woman in my row who introduced herself as Cheska stood up to announce that she was there to talk about her 23-year-old daughter, who had been missing for a year and a half. “I’m expecting a miracle,” she said. “She’s going to be returned soon.” Warning that the End Times were upon us, Cheska asked us to pray for her and for one another. A few people again said, “Amen,” and at least one woman gave her a hug.
As I left the theater, I approached another group of friends to hear what they thought. They all declined to share their last names, but were happy to tell me how powerful they’d found the movie. “Men want to protect people,” a dark-haired middle-aged man named George said, “so it’s embarrassing that there’s anyone out there that would ever do that to a child.” He brought up the new Jason Aldean song, “Try That in a Small Town,” in which the country artist promises vigilante justice. “I like that song that no one wants to talk about,” George said. Real men would beat up a child abuser.
“You realize you’re talking to some of the few conservatives in the area?” George’s bearded friend Steven asked me, with a wink. “You know what surprises me,” he went on, “is why the left hates this movie. I don’t get it.” He looked at me as though he expected an answer.
If people on the left are repelled by this movie, it’s for the same reasons people on the right feel so obligated to see it. Our political leaders, our social circles, and our chosen media have signaled in our echo chambers exactly how we should feel about it—and so much else, besides. Bud Light. Gas stoves. School libraries. The Target Pride section. Elon Musk’s Twitter. Luke Combs’s “Fast Car.” The entire Walt Disney Company. Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute.
It’s exhausting. All I wanted to do was put on a pink dress and enjoy a movie about a plastic doll.
Source: The Atlantic
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