- Movie Rating -

Sound of Freedom (2023)

| July 15, 2023

I arrived at Sound of Freedom, the latest Christian booster drama a few weeks ago with a certain expectation wrapped in negativity that comes with experience.  Since the boom of this religious-based genre began in the middle part of the last decade, I have put myself through a fair amount of these films, and my reaction is not as reactionary as one might want to think.  I’m a left-leaning fellow you see – not a bleeding-heart, but a person of common sense.  I’m also a person who has spent a lifetime giving my time and attention to cinema of all shapes and sizes.  I’ve seen thousands of movies, and reviewed a great number of them.  Every film that comes before me does so with a blank slate.  Every film deserves a chance, and I pride myself on giving it that chance.  These films, however, don’t make it easy.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not knocking this mini-genre for its politics or for its faith-based origins; everybody deserves a movie aimed at them.  I knock these films because they are, at all times, generally terrible as movies.  They are badly made, badly acted, badly written, and in the worst of times offer up a perspective that I find troubling (see War Room).  For me, it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to this genre.  They’re just bad no matter what side of the political spectrum on which you stand.

Having said that, I want you to know that this left-leaning critic walked into Sound of Freedom with an open mind – I walk into all films with an open mind.  Giving credit where credit is due, the Christian faith-based genre has grown up since the wrong-headed God’s Not Dead nearly a decade ago.  The arguments are slightly more thought out, and the films don’t seem to have that cheap made-for-TV look about them.  But they’re still barking at the post of manipulation.  They seem to be moving their audience with heavy doses of what it wants to hear without challenging them or asking them to think.

I lay this accusation on Sound of Freedom not because of its genre but because what I experienced watching the film.  While the genre has only slightly grown out of pitying itself over atheists (God’s Not Dead), bad marriages (War Room), the war on Christmas (Last Ounce of Courage), dating (Old Fashioned), abortion (Unplanned) or Columbine (I’m Not Ashamed), it hasn’t matured into anything that gets your brain jogging – they’re so weak-kneed they try to do it for you.  And, given the wide birth of subject matter, it is clear that the makers of these films have a little trouble deciding what hill they want to die on.

I stand away from all of that.  I’m just here for the movie.  Sound of Freedom is, on a technical level, a better production.  It’s look ebbs close to a really dark episode of CSI.  Its music is ominous and brooding, and its lighting is set to make the hero, played by Jim Caviezel, look beatific and brawny – he’s sexy with muscles but, rest assured, the most powerful muscle is the one beating in his chest.  As Tim Ballard, a real-life homeland security agent who left his job 10 months before his pension to personally take up the cause of child sex trafficking in Columbia, he’s a frustrated saint, Batman as sensitive male.

Caviezel once played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ and continually reminds us of that role in the three dozen shots in which he sits bathed in heavenly light while his blonde hair and moist blue eyes gleam in the sunlight.  Of course, this image is backed by solemn angelic music calling him on his mission.  It’s all painted on thick just so you don’t miss a thing – after all, you need to be led by the hand through all of this.

Ballard’s world is played out in a sparsely populated landscape.  He works in a government building where, I think, only about five other people work.  He’s a lone-wolf, you see.  Or perhaps Angel Studios just couldn’t afford a lot of extras.  Either way, it allows Ballard the quiet spaces he needs to thrash and bash suspects who are responsible for aiding the international sex trade.  His muscles flex in a way that let you know he’s serious.

Yet, I will give credit where credit is due.  The movie does have a dark and gritty feel, and some of its images do weigh in on the horrors of what is happening.  Children are kidnapped and loaded onto vans by grimy slimebags and carted off to be locked away.  It’s all very effective.  Ballard leaves his job and his family (his wife is played by Mira Sorvino whose role requires her to do dishes and stand by her man) to go down to Columbia on a rescue operation.

The pieces are in place; the problem is the filmmaking.  It’s all packaged and manipulated to make you care without upsetting you too much.  Director Alejandro Monteverde (who was also the film’s co-screenwriter) doesn’t really seem compelled to offer up any details about how the operation works; no real focus on the kinds of individuals who keep it going and certainly no hint of the high-ranking politicians who helpfully look the other way.  There’s no real information about how these things work, and in a movie about a subject this volcanic, these are the things that are most important.  His images play to the easily-led – the information that this crime is perpetrated by individuals south of the U.S. border packed into a narrative made up of surface-line information that, yes, this is indeed happening.  It’s all done through dimly lit images and horrifying music more suited for a horror movie than a thriller about a real problem.  Many of my fellow critics have called the film on the carpet for baiting a possible QAnon conspiracy.  I didn’t read that into the film, but given the subject matter, one has to admit that it does float in the air.

All through this movie I kept thinking that the message might have been better served in a documentary.  But, I reasoned, documentaries require effort, they require information and research and a narrative through-line, names, positions, incidents, real facts.  This is not something that Angel Studios is striving for.  It wants to present the problem of human trafficking through means of conspiracy and conjecture but not in real terms.  The movie ends with a text that reminds you that Ballard’s efforts helped pass legislation that made international cooperation on the kinds of sting operations portrayed in the film possible.  But that only goes to illustrate that what he did was given a nod at a governmental level.  There’s a larger problem at stake here, and I don’t think that the screenwriters have researched or educated themselves on the particulars of the problem.  We get manipulated with feelings, not information.

The movie ends with an on-screen message from Caviezel who reminds us that Sound of Freedom doesn’t have big studio money and to call out audiences to spread the word: rent out theaters and get this movie in front of audiences before it gets swallowed up by the summer blockbusters.  Either Angel Studios understands its limits, or they are using this to admit that they have a subpar film on their hands.  Caviezel posits that the film could be used as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of child sex trafficking.  That’s interesting, the problem is that the film is so spare on details that I don’t think it will work out that way.  When he offers up a QR code that you can scan right there in the theater in order to buy more tickets to get people to see the film, I smell box office desperation more than any noble cause.  Might the time have been better spent on researching, on giving us more information on the subject?  Might it have been better spent letting us know the particulars of the problem?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Drama