While “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” opened with record numbers in July, another sleeper hit quietly dominated the box office.
The “Sound of Freedom,” a thriller about a former Homeland Security agent battling human trafficking, has grossed $173 million since its release on July 4, Variety reports.
But as “Sound of Freedom” soars in the box office, controversy around the movie is on the rise, too, with critics alleging it paints an inaccurate picture of human trafficking and that the film has ties to the conspiracy group QAnon.
The controversy heightened Aug. 4 after reports surfaced that one of the thousands of people who contributed funds to the making of the film was charged with being an accessory to child kidnapping.
Now, the film's screenwriter and director Alejandro Monteverde is calling the QAnon labels "heartbreaking" and "not true" in a mid-August full court press of the media.
Here’s what to know.
What is 'Sound of Freedom' about?
“Sound of Freedom” is based on the real story of Tim Ballard, a former U.S. Department for Homeland Security agent who conducts sting operations to rescue a young brother and sister from human trafficking in Colombia.
Jim Caviezel, who portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” plays Ballard in the movie.
According to a description of the movie from Angel Studios, the movie depicts Ballard’s “relentless pursuit of justice exposes the dark underbelly of this global crime, leaving an indelible impact on the fight for freedom.”
The movie includes fictionalized versions of some real-life people, including Ballard and his wife, Katherine Ballard. According to Angel Studios, many of the movie’s supporting characters are based on, or inspired by, real-life trafficking victims and perpetrators that Ballard reportedly encountered during his rescue missions.
Ballard has been part of the “Sound of Freedom” press tour, but he recently stepped away from Operation Underground Railroad, the group he founded, OUR confirmed to TODAY.com.
Why is 'Sound of Freedom' sparking controversy?
Some experts have challenged the factual accuracy of “Sound of Freedom,” saying it paints an inaccurate, sensationalized picture of child trafficking.
The film portrays children being snatched and kidnapped by strangers. While this can certainly happen, it’s a myth that most traffickers “target victims they don’t know,” according to Polaris, an organization that operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.
In fact, “many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents,” Polaris notes.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Erin Albright, an attorney with extensive experience in the anti-trafficking field, called the movie’s portrayal of trafficking “sensational” and said it perpetuates unhelpful and even harmful myths.
Albright argued that when popular movies promote the narrative that trafficking involves forceful kidnapping and imprisonment, it makes it harder for people to grasp more complex trafficking cases, such as cases of coercive control or psychological manipulation.
“When you have a case of really subtle coercion that’s hard to prove, and the jury is expecting ‘Taken,’ you’re not gonna get a conviction … and it makes that much harder for survivors,” Albright told Rolling Stone.
In their recent blog post about “Sound of Freedom,” distributor Angel Studios acknowledged that the movie’s portrayal of child trafficking does not necessarily reflect the way trafficking occurs in the real world.
“It is worth noting that the movie took creative liberties in depicting the different methods of child trafficking,” the distribution company wrote. “While instances do exist where children are transported in various vehicles, the majority of trafficking occurs through a manipulative grooming process.”
The company also noted that “in the beginning of the film, real security camera footage is shown depicting various kidnappings. While such incidents do occur in the realm of human trafficking, it’s important to recognize that they do not represent the majority.”
Why are some people linking 'Sound of Freedom' to QAnon?
Some critics of “Sound of Freedom” take issue with its popularity among supporters of QAnon, a far-right conspiracy group that promotes the baseless claim that former President Donald Trump is fighting a secret war against a network of “Satanist child abusers in government entertainment and the media.” QAnon’s theories proliferate on social media.
“Sound of Freedom,” which finished filming in 2018, does not have any plotlines centered around the QAnon movement. Neal Harmon, CEO of Angel Studios, has rejected the idea that the movie promotes any conspiratorial views.
“Anybody who watches this film knows that this film is not about conspiracy theories,” he told The New York Times this month. “It’s not about politics.”
While the film itself does not endorse any QAnon talking points, some high-profile supporters of QAnon have been promoting the movie. While he hasn’t described himself as a QAnon supporter, the film’s star, Jim Caviezel, has publicly voiced QAnon views in the past.
QAnon is a far right movement that incorrectly believes a network of global elites are kidnapping children to sexually abuse them and harvest their blood.
In videos from a far-right conference in 2021, Caviezel can be seen using one of QAnon’s slogans: “The storm is upon us.” The phrase refers to the movement’s fight against the imagined pedophile cabal, Washington Post reports. CNN also reported in April 2021 that the actor had appeared at a different conference and pushed the false QAnon belief that child traffickers drain children’s blood to harvest adrenochrome, a chemical compound they believe to be a life-giving substance.
Caviezel did not respond to TODAY.com's request for comment.
Former President Trump, who has shared QAnon-related social media posts in the past, has also publicly supported the movie.
“'Sound of Freedom' has been a national sensation and a colossal success at the box office, really big numbers, everyone should see it,” Trump said in an email to supporters. “This is a very important film and very important movie and it’s a very important documentary all wrapped up in one. It’s really about an issue that has to be discussed.”
The former president hosted a screening of “Sound of Freedom” at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on July 19.
Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon attended the screening and said the movie could “unite the country,” according to The Guardian.
What does Jim Caviezel believe?
Caviezel did not respond to TODAY.com’s multiple requests for comment as of Aug. 14.
Caviezel did, however, do a July 11 interview with the podcast “The Charlie Kirk Show,” which is produced by Turning Point USA, an American nonprofit organization that advocates for conservative politics on high school, college, and university campuses.
In a wide ranging interview with Kirk, Caviezel said he “never knew” about QAnon while he was making “Sound of Freedom.”
Writer/director Alejandro Monteverde says QAnon labels are 'heartbreaking'
After the film he wrote and directed started to make headlines for its popularity with the far-right, Monteverde began doing interviews with press outlets distancing the film's stars from the product.
In an interview with Variety, Monteverde pointed out that the film was shot in 2018 and "completely finished" by 2019 — prior to QAnon's 2020 explosion in popularity.
He added that when he saw the negative press about the film, it was "heartbreaking."
"I was like really sick. I was like, ‘This is all wrong. That’s not true.’ It was heartbreaking when I saw all this polemic and all this controversy going on," he said. "Look, when you hire people, what they do on the free time, I can’t control. I was a director. I wrote the screenplay. I hired the actor I thought was the best for this film."
He added that Caviezel had adopted three children from China and had broken down "in tears" when they'd met and discussed the project.
“There’s people that are too close to the film that are in politics,” he says of Caviezel and Ballard. “So it’s like, I love you, but I have to keep my distance.”
'Sound of Freedom' has a 'pay it forward' approach
Angel Studios’ introduced unconventional, grassroots “Pay it Forward” strategy to bring people to the theater.
Star Caviezel explained the intent behind the strategy at the end of the trailer for the film was to help people "hear the story" of trafficking children.
"Our goal is to inspire two million people to attend the film's opening weekend to represent the two million traffic children around the world," he said. “Angel Studios set up a pay it forward program where you can pay for someone else’s ticket who might not otherwise see it. If the ticket price is stopping from attending, claim your free ticket."
According to the studio's website, the goal was far exceeded, with over 10 million sold so far.
When people go to see “Sound of Freedom,” a message at the end of the movie urges people to buy additional tickets online to cover “the cost of actual movie tickets for someone who would not otherwise be able to see the film.”
One of the investors was charged with kidnapping
Fabian Marta, a financial patron of “The Sound of Freedom,” was charged with being an accessory to child kidnapping a few weeks after the film premiered.
The 51-year-old was arrested for accessory child kidnapping on July 23 in St. Louis, according to a statement from the St. Louis Police Department.
A probable cause statement provided to NBC News by the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office alleges Marta assisted an unnamed suspect with the harboring of her two daughters, who the suspect had “unlawfully” taken from another home, in an apartment he owned. Marta is also accused of interfering with the return of the two victims to their lawful parent by refusing to allow police access to his apartment.
The two victims are under the age of 14 years old, according to a criminal complaint obtained by NBC News.
A representative for Marta, attorney Scott Rosenblum, confirmed to NBC News that Marta is credited at the end of “Sound of Freedom.”
“I am his counsel,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “Very confident in our defense. The charges are extremely I’ll founded (sic).”
In response to NBC News’ request for comment about Marta’s arrest, Angel Studios shared a statement detailing its crowdfunding investor policy. More than 6,000 people helped fund the making of the movie, according to a statement from Harmon, CEO of Angel Studios.
“Just as anyone can invest in the stock market, everyone who meets the legal criteria can invest in Angel Studios projects. One of the perks of investing was the ability to be listed in the credits,” Harmon said in the statement.
“We’re grateful to brave law enforcement officials who have already arrested dozens of traffickers in the weeks following ‘Sound of Freedom’s’ release,” the statement continued. “Our film speaks to this globally-pervasive problem, and it is our hope that perpetrators everywhere will be brought to justice no matter who they are, and that even more people will see the film to raise awareness.”