A watershed moment for Christian films?

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(Image credit:

Angel Studios


(Credit: Angel Studios)

It’s been the surprise hit of the summer, dividing opinion and going head-to-head with the new Indiana Jones. But is it really a Christian film and how will its success impact the film industry? Brandon Ambrosino reports.


Depending on whom you ask, the surprise hit US film Sound of Freedom is a “provocative and gripping” film offering “moral clarity” on a harrowing, child-threatening issue – or else it is a “QAnon-tinged thriller… designed to appeal to the conscience of a conspiracy-addled boomer.” Either way, it’s clear this movie is not just a movie. It has become something else, something more.

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Inspired by the experiences of Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security Agent who has latterly spent his career rescuing victims of human trafficking, Sound of Freedom tells the fictionalised story of Ballard’s (Jim Caviezel) journey to Colombia to save a kidnapped brother and sister who have been seized by a woman posing as a model scout. The film progresses as you’d expect: Ballard saves the children and reunites them with their father. There are a few tame action sequences. The good guys are heroic. There aren’t many twists and turns.

Sound of Freedom deals with the topic of child trafficking, telling the story of a mission to rescue victims from Colombia (Credit: Angel Studios)

Sound of Freedom deals with the topic of child trafficking, telling the story of a mission to rescue victims from Colombia (Credit: Angel Studios)

A critic at RogerEbert.com called it “a solemn, drawn-out bore with a not particularly bold narrative stance”. However Variety disagreed – describing it as a “compelling movie that shines an authentic light on one of the crucial criminal horrors of our time” – as have plenty of cinemagoers. The film has racked up a strong box office showing, earning more than $45 million in ticket sales in the US since its release on 4th July. A lot of tickets – more than four million according to the website of its makers Angel Studios – have been sold via a unique Pay It Forward scheme whereby ticket buyers can buy multiple tickets for others to claim for free.

Sound of Freedom has held its own next to sure-fire summer blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Insidious: the Red Door. In fact, the film from a small independent studio outperformed the Disney-backed Indy on opening day – a datapoint that many supporters of Sound of Freedom are proud to point out. It has widely been described by the likes of Variety as a “faith-based” movie and a major win for that particular Christian-centred market.

It has also received support from prominent US conservatives, many of whom identify with what has been called the “Religious Right”. (Although difficult to pin down, the term refers to the allyship of conservative Christianity and Republican politics, which emerged in the US in the second half of the 20th Century.) Donald Trump is set to host a screening of the film with Caviezel and Ballard next week. Taking aim at the Houston Chronicle’s criticism of the film, Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “How pissed is the @chron (with their ridiculous hit piece) that #SoundOfFreedomBEAT Indiana Jones to take #1 at the box office on July 4? GO SEE IT!” Conservative commentators Benny Johnson and Ben Shapiro echoed this with similar sentiments on Twitter, and on Instagram, Ballard himself shared a post comparing the two films’ grosses. 

A ‘David and Goliath’ story?

What’s notable in this messaging is the David and Goliath framing of the film’s success as a little, independent film backed by churchgoers that took on a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, in a pre-release interview, the film’s director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde even described the battle it faced as “David and Goliath on steroids”.

In keeping with this, the idea that a humble audience eager to crowdfund “values-based films” – as Neil Harmon, co-founder and CEO of Angel Studios, calls them – is giving liberal Hollywood a run for their money comes through in a lot of Angel’s marketing strategies. For example, in a promotional video on Angel’s website, an actor explicitly differentiates Angel’s audiences from Hollywood decision-makers. “Hollywood has no idea what type of content actually matters to you,” he says. Whereas traditional Hollywood films are chosen by a handful of executives, Angel’s content is “chosen by the greatest executives of all time – you,” he says. “You are the best decision makers when it comes to film and TV.”

The fact is if religious leaders are pushing the film, that just means that any film from that distributor has the seal of approval of the faith community – Paul Dergarabedian

Angel Studios, Harmon explains in an interview with BBC Culture, is supported by its Angel Guild, a voting body of fans of Angel films who have pledged $100 or more to the studios. Guild members review “Torches“, which are previews of upcoming films, and vote on whether the studio should distribute it. The Guild is specifically looking for films that “amplify light,” an ambiguous phrase they use to define a film or TV show that are “true, honest, noble, just, authentic, lovely, admirable, excellent, or worthy of praise”.

Not everyone who hears this list of adjectives would know that they’re strikingly similar to a list written in the New Testament. Such religious signalling also happens in the film, when Caviezel quotes (but doesn’t say he’s quoting) the Gospel of Matthew to someone he is about to arrest –  though Ballard tells BBC Culture Caviezel improvised this moment during filming and that the Bible reference was not in the original screenplay.

Perhaps the point is to sound biblical only to those in the know. However when I ask Harmon if he sees Sound of Freedom as a faith-based film, he says, repeating his aforementioned terminology, that it is a “values-based film”. Ballard, for his part, tells me that while he’s “a person of faith” he “never would have called it a faith-based film”. 

Tim Ballard, whose experiences Sound of Freedom is based on, was the founder of anti-child trafficking organisation Operation Underground Railroad (Credit: Getty Images)

Tim Ballard, whose experiences Sound of Freedom is based on, was the founder of anti-child trafficking organisation Operation Underground Railroad (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, based on the conversations springing up around Sound of Freedom, it seems like plenty of fans are reading it as a faith-based film. Many are sharing links to glowing reviews from Christian outlets, such as Christian Broadcasting Network, The Christian Post, and Charisma News. Another outlet with less explicitly religious ties, the conservative Fox News, has run a promotional interview with Caviezel in which he claims that Christianity is “under attack“. 

What is a ‘faith-based’ film?

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, a global media measurement company, suggests that Angel Studios might want to avoid putting itself in a “faith-based” box for marketing reasons. “Nobody wants to call their rom-com a rom-com because studios feel like that will hurt the movie, and it’ll dissuade certain audiences from seeing it. But the fact is if religious leaders are pushing the film, that just means that any film from that distributor has the seal of approval of the faith community.

There are two distinct kinds of faith-based films, Dergarabedian says. One is overtly religious (like the recent Jesus Revolution and the God’s Not Dead franchise) while the other, though not featuring religious themes front-and-centre, “has the seal and approval of faith-based communities”. Sound of Freedom falls into the latter group, he says.

Some of the negative coverage of Sound of Freedom has connected the film to QAnon conspiracy theories, specifically noting that Caviezel has at times seemingly embraced some of them. According to the New York Times, QAnon is “the umbrella term for a set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles”. Some QAnon believers focus their attention on the notion of a giant global child trafficking network. Promoting the film on right-wing media personality Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room in May, Caviezel called QAnon “a good thing” and made reference to “adrenochrome”, a chemical which according to QAnon followers, is harvested by elites from children’s adrenal glands. 

Everybody who has seen this film knows that it’s not political, it’s not controversial, it’s just a true story well told – Neil Harmon

For his part, Ballard says that everything he’s seen about the film’s alleged QAnon connections “seems conspiratorial” and is not reflected in the film, which, he emphasises, was “written, produced, and filmed years ago [in 2018] well before anyone [had] heard about QAnon”. Meanwhile Harmon simply says that “Everybody who has seen this film knows that it’s not political, it’s not controversial, it’s just a true story well told.”

On top of the QAnon allegations, there have also been critical reports calling into question the achievements of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), an organisation started by Ballard that works against child trafficking. According to its website, OUR has rescued more than 6,000 victims and is responsible for more than 5,000 arrests. In 2020, however, VICE News wrote an investigative report on Ballard’s non-profit, accusing OUR not of “outright falsehoods but a… series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading.” OUR said at the time that VICE had an “agenda” to present a “negative portrayal of an honourable organisation” and that they had “provided factual information to Vice to disprove the inaccurate contentions raised by them”. On Thursday, OUR told Vice that Ballard had “stepped away” from the organisation prior to the release of the film. 

There’s no denying that Sound of Freedom is a commercial success. It earned back its budget on opening day, and has garnered around-the-clock media coverage. The film is “a profit machine”, as Dergarabedian calls it, and he believes Hollywood will be taking note. “[Having] all different types of movies for all different types of audiences is a really good thing for the industry – not only to have diverse content out there, but also from a business standpoint, it can make a whole lot of sense.”

What’s less clear, though, as evidenced by the conversations happening around the film, is what the film’s unique selling point, which has made it the summer’s surprise hit, really is. Is it a truly Christian/faith-based movie or not? Is it a thriller simply highlighting an all-too-important and harrowing global issue, or one implicitly aligning itself with popular conspiracy theories? Its ambiguity in these respects may have worked in its favour at the box office – though what its impact may be on the film industry longer-term is another matter altogether.

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