Jim Caviezel as a former Homeland Security agent confronting the child sex trade; “SOUND OF FREEDOM” MOVIE REVIEW

As critics, we must review a film’s cinematic merit first and its politics second. In my film reviews and articles, I always try to do just that.  Alejandro Monteverde’s runaway box office hit “Sound of Freedom” wants the opposite. This is a film that wants viewers to focus on its politics first and any cinematic value second. Or maybe even third. Or maybe it is just interested in its own politics.

The screenplay (co-written by Rod Barr and director Monteverde) certainly has a message, albeit an obvious one. The picture wants everyone to know how evil child sex trafficking is and the filmmakers will hammer their point home over and over. 

“Sound of Freedom” is based on the true story of Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security agent who has devoted himself to battling the child sex trade. Ballard founded Operation Underground Railroad in the quest to save children and bring down their captors. Jim Caviezel plays Ballard with a realistic intensity that (most of the time) overcomes the holier-than-thou lines he must deliver. 

Lest we forget, Caviezel is a fantastic performer who has long used his piercing stare and stern delivery to great effect in films such as Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil,” Gregory Hoblit’s “Frequency,” and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” 

The turning point for the actor was when he portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson’s record-breaking phenomenon that was 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ”. It was after that success that Caviezel began doing more faith-based projects. I do not knock that type of film; it just seems that the Christian-based products suffer from a lack of directorial skill and a tendency to preach to the audience rather than tell a story. 

The screenplay designs Ballard as a Christ-like figure to be sure, but Jim Caviezel knows how to act. The man can get inside a character. Playing Ballard, the actor finds truthfulness and humanity in the character when the script wants to raise him to sainthood. 

Director Monteverde follows Ballard’s tale with a solemn style, yet the over-earnest script and the too-measured pacing often dull the emotional impact. The filmmaker fails to give the work any edge.

The only other performance of weight comes from the great Bill Camp playing an American expat called “Batman.” Camp is such a fine character actor (one of the best working) that he pulls an Oscar-worthy execution of his character. Camp is so real and so good and has the film’s best moment, where the expat reveals a life of abuse and crime and his epiphany to do the right thing that led him to “the light”, now dedicated to saving children. 

The power of the monologue and the moment ultimately set up Caviezel to declare, “God’s children are not for sale.” Agenda be damned, it is a fantastic scene. 

As for the other performers, Kurt Fuller is okay as Ballard’s superior, but Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino (as Ballard’s wife) has only a few scenes and even less dialogue. While the actress has long been a voice in the fight against sex trafficking, the filmmakers gave her absolutely nothing to do.

Another missed opportunity is in the way the film portrays Roberto (Jose Zuniga). The Honduran father is swayed by Katy-Gisselle (Yessica Borroto Perryman), a woman posing as a talent agent but working for the traffickers. 

Roberto concedes to let his eleven year-old daughter, Rocio (Cristal Aparicio), and her 7-year-old brother go to an audition. He is told to leave the kids (no parents allowed) and return a few hours later to pick them up. When he returns, the apartment is empty, and his children are gone.

The film goes back to Roberto occasionally and it is his daughter and son who Ballard fights to return alive. Powerful, to be sure, but the film treats Roberto as nothing more than a dupe who is shown mooing around his house and/or the police station waiting for a sign. The drama that could’ve been new tween the father and Ballard is never properly mined, and Roberto’s sadness fails to connect. 

As Ballard and Batman go undercover to revue these children, the film cannot decide whether it is a serious message film or an exploitation picture. There are moments designed for a deep and skilled actor such as Jim Caviezel while others play out as if Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson were the lead. Monteverde never finds a dramatic balance and, eventually, any meaningful message is lost in a film that reveals itself to be another fear-mongering propaganda piece.

When the end credits roll, I kid you not, Jim Caviezel the actor comes on screen to make an impassioned plea for audiences to buy other people’s tickets so the word of the film can spread. There is even a website and barcode flashed so viewers can do this immediately.

This was one of the strangest things I have ever seen at the close of a film. 

As this ridiculous coda continues, the actor also claims that their film is the only true fight against the child sex trade. This being a Right Wing-funded project, of course, the “politicians and billionaires” are blamed for turning a blind eye. We know what that means and to whom Caviezel is referring. This is the type of dangerous dog whistle that has already made 2023 America a very dangerous place. 

In a film that struggles to be taken seriously, this was a shameful moment. Although (and I always separate the art from the artist) the actor is very much a part of that type of conspiratorial madness, I was embarrassed for Jim Caviezel. 

“Sound of Freedom” is (somewhat) earnest in its filmmaking, but ultimately, the director and his screenplay are more concerned with spreading fear rather than examining the roots and possible solutions of the problem. 

The message here is how a strong faith in God will give one the strength to be victorious over the evils of the child sex trade. In making Ballard a flawless saint, the theater becomes a pulpit and anything serious within the picture flatlines.

 

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