For better or for worse, the independently crowd-funded film Sound of Freedom has made waves in film news this year. The film debuted as a surprise box-office hit of the US Summer movie season, raking in over USD$177 million on a reported $14.5 million budget. The financial success can be partially attributed to the film’s unique ‘pay-it-forward’ system of ticket buying, which allowed audience members who were deeply affected by Sound of Freedom’s thematic elements to pre-purchase tickets that could then be claimed by others to watch the film, in theatres, for free.
But the film didn’t release into the smoothest sailing of cinematic waters. With a producer/investor of the film being charged with crimes disgustingly adjacent to the film’s core subject matter, conspiracy theories about cinemas sabotaging screenings or holding off on international release dates (which has since been debunked by the film’s own production company), and the controversial (more right-wing leaning) political ideologies involving those who made the film and those who are using their profiles to promote Sound of Freedom that have caused an uproar in the social media space, with those holding opposing views criticising the film itself based on those certain individuals’ involvement – it’s safe to say that while successful, Sound of Freedom is one of those rare releases (similar to The Flash releasing after the controversies surrounding lead star Ezra Miller) in which audiences must make their own mind up about separating art from the artist, and whether the backlash faced from others by choosing to watch the film is worth it.
Personally, having now watched Sound of Freedom, and done what I believe is enough research and reading on the events occurring outside the film, plus considering the social and financial impact this film has had in general, I feel comfortable in reviewing the film as it is, away from the controversy and dramas that it has entangled itself with. And in saying that, as a movie, Sound of Freedom does what it intended to do – be a reasonably well-made drama/thriller that isn’t going to win any awards, but highlights a horrifying reality that occurs all to frequently in today’s society, even if the overtly melodramatic saviour story does feel like quite an embellishment of the true events it’s based on (but there are 100s of movies guilty of such a thing).
Sound of Freedom is based on the true story of former Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ), who specialised in finding and detaining paedophiles and child predators in the United States. However, the toll this job takes on Ballard grows as his realisation that stopping the predators doesn’t necessarily bring back the children, due to the locations of these abused children being predominantly outside of the U.S.
Meanwhile in Honduras, a young brother and sister are unwillingly tricked into a child trafficking ring under the guise of a child modelling agency, taken with dozens of unsuspecting children. As Tim’s desire to rescue the children grows, he deceivingly befriends a paedophile he has arrested, which leads him down a rabbit hole of despicable predators, ultimately giving him information on where the young brother has been taken. Setting on a bold mission to save the trafficked children, Tim interweaves himself into a dark underworld, putting himself face-to-face with the heinous criminals at the head of a multi-million-dollar trafficking cartel.
The opening 10 minutes of Sound of Freedom are haunting. The tense and disturbing introduction into the world of child trafficking is an unflinching portrayal that undoubtedly sets the gritty tone of the film and hooks the audience in with a titan grip. While the pre-conceived notion going into this film should be that child trafficking is an awful crime, Sound of Freedom appropriately doubles down on the theme, painting a graphic picture of the reality that may not be realised by some coming into this film.
After such a strong opening, Jim Caviezel enters the picture as Tim Ballard with a hero’s welcome as Ballard dramatically kicks down the door of a paedophile’s dungeon and tackles him to the ground in an oddly action-film styled fashion. It’s at this point when Ballard is challenged by a fellow Special Agent about the fact that their division takes down the predators, but what happens to the children? And it’s a brilliant driving force to kick start a story about saving these mistreated children and be a vessel for an incredibly important story that demands being told to the audience.
Unfortunately, this slow paced, two-hour long, cringy dialogue filled (someone actually says that they can hear the ‘sound of freedom’ sincerely in this film…) film seems to constantly forget this immediately after the aforementioned scene, and rather becomes an embellished ‘praise the saviour’ story about Ballard himself, and the constant battles he encounters on his heightened rescue missions. There is no denying Ballard’s real-world efforts to combat child trafficking, including convincing the US congress to cooperate with foreign countries on trafficking investigations. However, the film plays out his life story without an ounce of humility, almost as if it’s telling the audience that Ballard is the only person in the entire world who has attempted to end child trafficking. The odd approach to telling the story this way often takes away from the impactful nature that the opening scene set so well. Rather than being an emotional story about the impact of child trafficking, told through Ballard’s point of view, it just feels like a more dialogue heavy remake of Taken.
It doesn’t help the films case that Jim Caviezel plays the saviour role (and the role of executive producer) with too much self-centred sincerity to see that the story is so tonally inconsistent. Caviezel’s performance almost parallels the issues with the overall narrative, portraying Ballard in a way that showcases Caviezel’s ability to switch back and forth between his only two emotions: man who is morally conflicted and man who is full of pride doing (literally in this case) God’s work. It’s in no way a captivating performance, and most of the time, it’s a completely serviceable performance to the way this film focuses on Ballard as a person, but there is just always this lingering feeling that Caviezel feels immodestly proud of the work he is doing by making this film. The film’s acting is saved by a committed and far more grounded approached from Bill Camp, who plays the man assisting Ballard in infiltrating the trafficking rings.
Director Alejandro Monteverde’s third feature film is competently made. There is a Hollywood sheen to the gritty nature of Sound of Freedom’s gritty thematic elements that gives a legitimacy to the film. This isn’t one of those HD Camcorder shot films, financially backed by the tithes and offerings from three years of church services that’s sole intention is just to get people to convert to Christianity. The cinematography, sets and production design are reasonably well done and have a big screen quality to them. There are moments of darkly lit scenes that feel muted for no particular reason, and aside from an incredibly over the top climatic finale, the camerawork itself doesn’t make the film feel as dynamic as it could be. However, with those small nitpicks aside, on a technical level, this is a well put together production.
Sound of Freedom has undoubtedly been at the forefront of a movement that most likely has non-malicious intentions to make the world aware of the importance of continually fighting against child trafficking. And while Tim Ballard’s story would have been an appropriate vehicle to get this message across, the film falls into an insincere trap that praises Ballard more than it focuses on the message it wants to get across. Outside the film controversies aside, Sound of Freedom is a fine movie. It’s by no means a good movie, but it’s effective enough despite some of it’s more ridiculous embellishments.
Sound of Freedom is in Australian cinemas August 24.
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