columnAntisemitism

A film about saving children isn’t an antisemitic conspiracy

Those trashing the indie hit “Sound of Freedom” as “QAnon adjacent” are hypocrites who show how politics twists discourse about both the arts and crimes against children.

Promo for the “Sound of Freedom“ film, starring Jim Caviezel. Source: Screenshot/Angel Studios.
Promo for the “Sound of Freedom“ film, starring Jim Caviezel. Source: Screenshot/Angel Studios.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

“Sound of Freedom” is the film that the chattering classes are encouraging you not to see. NPR says its success is due to support from the shadowy QAnon extremist group. It’s been blasted by The Guardian as “QAnon adjacent” and was linked to blood libels and conspiracy theories by a JTA article. A CNN segment labeled it as a crude and fraudulent piece of agitprop that is the product of a “moral panic.” It’s the kind of movie that enlightened and educated people are supposed to avoid at all costs.

And yet, somehow in this season of Hollywood blockbusters, it is “Sound of Freedom”—a movie shot on a slim budget five years ago and distributed by a fledgling independent studio that is largely associated with marginal religious content—that is the surprise runaway hit of the summer. Describing the exploits of real-life former Homeland Security Department agent Tim Ballard in combating the sexual trafficking of children, it sold $148 million in tickets at theaters since its release on July 4. That put it in third place during the month in box-office receipts, trailing only the massively promoted “Barbie” ($351 million) and “Oppenheimer” ($174 million), and actually soundly beating two other major studio releases—the latest editions of the “Mission Impossible” and “Indiana Jones” franchises, despite being shown on fewer screens than all of those films.

This success of a movie that has been trashed by the corporate media and whose star, actor Jim Caviezel, has given evidence of being an extremist, is troubling to those who clearly view it as the product of right-wing nutcases. This is a film that the entertainment establishment sought to shelve and then treated with disdain. It has almost no promotional budget (especially when compared to the media blitz surrounding the “Barbenheimer” duo) and has relied almost solely on word of mouth, as well as a unique “pay it forward” system by which moviegoers are encouraged to help pay for the tickets of others to go see it.

So for “Sound of Freedom” to have not merely gained an audience but to have created a genuine groundswell of support from the public must say something terrible about America in 2023.

Or does it?

Stripped of the efforts to besmirch the filmmakers and even its audience, it’s clear that the anger about the movie’s success is mainly a function of the role that politics play in contemporary popular culture. It also speaks volumes about the hypocrisy of liberals. They denounce the treatment of children when it can be pinned on one of their principal political demons—former President Donald Trump. But they prefer to put down the concerns “Sound of Freedom” raises about child trafficking to the paranoia and extremism of a vast swath of the public that they still think of as “deplorables.”

A true story

The truth about the film and the story it tells has been largely obscured by the furious commentary it has engendered.

Though efforts have been made to besmirch Ballard by those seeking to hurt the film, he is someone who has dedicated his life to tracking down those who profit from child pornography and then seeking to rescue children who have been trafficked. While his story has been adapted, as is the case with many movies to create an easily understood and more dramatic narrative, the film is by no means disconnected from the truth.

The result is a picture that is compelling but still in many ways, a conventional true crime story/action-adventure thriller. Though the basic premise concerns the most shocking and disturbing crimes imaginable, the audience is, thankfully, never directly confronted with them. Instead, much like films of an earlier era when violence and sex were implied rather than thrown onto the screen, “Sound of Freedom” only hints at the horrors of the trafficking of children. Indeed a New York Times review seemed to disparage it for pulling its punches when it comes to explicit depictions of such terrible things and wondered if it stemmed from filmmaker Alejandro Monteverde’s “scrupulousness” or “lack of inspiration.”

What is completely missing from “Sound of Freedom” are the elements that skeptical audience members primed by the negative accounts about conspiracy-mongering and extremist-adjacent narratives to expect: antisemitism or anything resembling a political agenda.

Despite the sensational nature of the commentary about the film, there are no identifiably Jewish characters nor are any of the villains (and the bad guys in “Sound of Freedom” are among the most loathsome to be found in any movie that doesn’t depict genocide) shown as having any characteristics that might link them to Jews or any other usual object of conspiratorial fears.

One element that is indisputably part of its outlook is something that some in the film industry find almost as disturbing as sex crimes: faith. Both the main character and his associate speak of their faith in religion as motivating them to risk their lives, and in Ballard’s case, also his career at DHS, in order to rescue enslaved kids. Though even there, the religiosity is ecumenical. Other than the fact that a Catholic medallion of St. Timothy plays a role in the plot, the identity of the faith of those shown is merely implied.

Still, the film’s catchphrase: “God’s children are not for sale,” understandably resonates with audiences. But incredibly, it also seems to have made some in the liberal commentariat wonder if this is some kind of dog whistle to extremists.

Boycotting actors

The only actual evidence of extremism concerns the utterances of the film’s star. Ballard is portrayed by Jim Caviezel, a veteran actor best known for his portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” and whose intense performance carries the film. Something of a loose cannon, he appeared once at an event that was linked with QAnon. He has also spewed some actual conspiracy talk about “Rothschild bankers” and claims that the blood of murdered children is trafficked, something that can be analogized to traditional blood libels against Jews, though Caviezel has never made that link.

If one thinks that actors who say such things should be boycotted, that is a plausible rationale for avoiding “Sound of Freedom.” However, if you’re going to take that position, consistency would require a boycott of films or shows of actors who support Palestinian blood libels against Jews. Given the scores of actors who have signed BDS and anti-Israel petitions falsely accusing the Jewish state of apartheid, anyone who adheres to that position isn’t going to be able to see many current movies or television shows.

Part of the effort to align “Sound of Freedom” with extremists is the assertion of the film’s producers that major studios sought to suppress it. But the charge holds up. The film was produced under the aegis of the Latin American division of 20th Century Fox films. When that company was bought by Disney, it shelved the film. Given the woke turn that the company has taken in recent years, it doesn’t require much of a leap of imagination to think that both the content and the religiosity of the film led to that decision.

“Sound of Freedom” only reached the theaters this year because those involved in its production managed to buy it back from Disney. It then only saw the light of day because the indie studio Angel crowdsourced the funding, raising $5 million from several thousand investors who believed in the project.

But what is most objectionable about the effort to take down the movie is the idea that it is sensationalizing or in some way promoting a concern that isn’t real.

While no one claims that child trafficking isn’t a horrible crime, the fact that QAnon—an amorphous group with a miniscule following but enormous media coverage from liberal outlets—talks about the subject seems to have rendered it out of bounds for supposedly right-thinking people. That’s in spite of the fact that when the movie was in production five years ago, nobody had ever heard of them.

Hypocrisy about human trafficking

What makes the issue of mass abuse of children even more important today is that the virtual open southern border of the United States as a result of the policies of President Joe Biden has facilitated its increase.

Ironically, many on the left screamed bloody murder over the alleged abuse of children during the Trump administration and its policy of separating families that crossed the border illegally. That practice had existed under the Obama administration, but it only generated negative coverage when it could be blamed on Trump. What those critics have failed to acknowledge is that many of those kids were not actually with their parents but were being taken over the border by those who traffic in illegal immigrants.

This trade in human beings is run by the Mexican drug cartels that largely control that side of the border, and it is to be expected that a lot of those children who are being spirited into the United States are forced to work in terrible conditions with some being abused.

Suffice it to say, it ill-behooves those who are deliberately turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis at America’s southern border because they either favor open borders or don’t want to hurt Biden’s political prospects to also denigrate a film that seeks to draw attention to the issue of child trafficking.

Removing political blinders, it’s clear that the movie is neither antisemitic nor an attempt to promote a conspiracy theory and deserves the large audience it is getting.

Buying a ticket to a movie isn’t going to solve the problem, but as the film’s post-credits appeal by Caviezel states, it hopes to contribute to raising awareness of it. Having seen it myself, I can attest that though it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, it is a gripping and moving film that leaves audiences deeply affected. That, and not because hundreds of thousands of Americans are supposedly QAnon fans or even “QAnon-adjacent” is why the word-of-mouth marketing for “Sound of Freedom” is succeeding so spectacularly.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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