Reviewed by Alex Taylor.

Several weeks after its release on the July 4th holiday weekend, Sound of Freedom continues to attract viewers and commentators from across the political spectrum. Inspired by the true story of Tim Ballard, a former Department of Homeland Security agent who founded Operation Underground Railroad to rescue victims of child trafficking, the small studio release which stars Jim Caviezel as Ballard has continued to punch above its weight class, bringing in over $124.7 million dollars with a budget of only $14.5 million, modest by Hollywood standards. The review coverage of Sound of Freedom has become a story of its own, where leftist media entities have slandered the film as “QAnon adjacent,” showing that even on an issue—child sex trafficking—that should be appalling to all human beings, political concerns can (for some) trump moral concerns traditionally understood. Reviews on the right side of the aisle have tended to focus on the great evil of trafficking and the David vs. Goliath story: the movie is doing tremendously well despite having been shelved by Disney in 2018 after it acquired 21st Century Fox. But for those concerned with the moral imagination, it is not enough to consider the film’s moral stance, because the film’s imaginative way of presenting heroism gives the lie to the film’s more critical reviews.

After the end of the film proper, the credits inform the audience to wait for a special message, in which Caviezel earnestly informs them of the prevalence of child trafficking and asks for their help in buying tickets for those who may not be able to otherwise afford to see the movie. During this message, however, Caviezel says something of not only moral but also narrative importance: “The Sound of Freedom is a hero’s tale, but I’m not talking about the character I play. It’s the heroic brother and sister in this film that work to save each other. They are the true heroes.” The aesthetic question of this film is whether the audience is able to see the children as its heroes or only as victims; survivors, not merely sufferers.

Many reviews have noted that Caviezel is best known for his role as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (2004), but they have overlooked his starring role in the five season Jonathan Nolan show Person of Interest (2011-2016) as former CIA agent John Reese, who works with a reclusive billionaire to save normal citizens from incipient crimes predicted by an AI system fed by government surveillance data. With respect to how it portrays its protagonist(s), Sound of Freedom lies not simply between these two projects, but as if in a dimension beyond them. John Reese is such a competent operative that he at times comes across like a superhero: incredibly strong and crafty to the point that it is almost unbelievable that he exists. We might use the term “American Jesus” to describe him: the action hero who intervenes in the lives of everyday humans to protect them from the threat of physical rather than spiritual death. Reese’s salvific acts differ dramatically from those Caviezel portrays in The Passion

Caviezel’s depiction of Ballard is somewhere between these two past roles: Ballard suffers from his job as a DHS agent, catching pedophiles who buy child pornography (and having to watch the videos in order to describe them in official reports), but never saving the children who are being abused, miles and nations away. After being asked about this by a new colleague, Ballard decides to take a more active approach, tricking a recently-caught pedophile into arranging a child to be brought across the border (Miguel) so that he can be saved from slavery, only to find out that Miguel’s older sister Rocio has also been trafficked. Ballard decides to go to Cartagena to find the girl, organizing a sting operation along the way, which, although saving 54 other children, does not allow him to find Rocio. One of the traffickers confesses to Ballard that she was sold down the river to a group of rebels, which Ballard is able to infiltrate as a UN doctor coming to provide vaccines to the remote area. He finally saves the girl and escapes, but has to fight and kill the rebel leader who has been keeping her in captivity.

This summary might make Tim Ballard sound more like John Reese, but the film surprisingly subverts its action-thriller genre by muting the heroics of Ballard. While a number of scenes contain a great deal of tension, there is really only one fight scene, but it is presented through Rocio’s perspective after Ballard has told her to close her eyes: so we mainly hear the fight while seeing the way light moves when one has his or her eyelids closed. The film works generally by implication, showing children approached by men in hotel rooms, but refusing to participate even a little in the attention economy it stalwartly condemns. The focus of the camera and the dialogue is presenting a grave evil in such a way as to preserve the innocence of the film’s viewers.

The unanswered question I have is that aesthetic question pointed to earlier: does it make not moral but narrative sense that the two children in the movie are its heroes? Rocio is seen only briefly in the film, but after he is saved, Miguel is insistent that ‘Timoteo’ (whose saint medal he wears and gives to Ballard) save his sister. It is his intercession that causes the agent to save the girl, even sacrificing his job and pension in order to do so. After a tremendous amount of suffering, Miguel is not absorbed in his own trauma, but still acts in love for his sister; his attention is not focused on resentment of the horrors he has faced in his short life, but on trying to reunite his family. It is this kind of heroism to which the film seeks to urge its audience: not many viewers can leave their jobs behind and travel to South America to save children, but we can intercede for them where we can, whether in prayer or deeds. The solution to the problem is not simply more and stronger government agents bashing down doors (although on the level of policy re-orienting immigration policies to help limit and prevent trafficking would be helpful), but the work of communities and individuals advocating and interceding in a variety of ways.

The contribution of Miguel’s intercessory heroism helps illustrate what leftist critics of the film miss with their alignment of the film with QAnon conspiracy theories: that while the two may be thematically connected, they are imaginatively foreign. QAnon is a melodrama: the grand conspiracy confronted by the heroics of one unsung and everywhere opposed hero, Donald Trump. Were Sound of Freedom written by Q, Ballard would be the focus of the movie, leading us to cheer him on as he beat up one pedophile after another, unmasking the conspiracy until he reached the highest level. Instead, it focuses on one family, and the tremendous way in which a few men and women working together can save brothers and sisters from bondage of the worst kind. Sound of Freedom raises awareness of one of the major moral issues of our era without moralizing, and should be applauded for that good work as well as its attempt to aesthetically reimagine a mythological plot by recasting victims as agents, not of revolution, but of familial love.

Alex Taylor is the Cowan Fellow for Criticism at the University of Dallas, where he teaches history, literature, and writing. He has written reviews, academic literary criticism, and poetry, both original lyrics and translations, for a variety of publications, and is currently at work on a dissertation on the problem of the modern city in the novels of Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh.

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