Thursday, September 7, 2023

Sound of Freedom: A Review (Review #1752)



It is a strange world indeed when a film about the evils of child sex trafficking can be considered in some circles crazed right-wing propaganda. Sound of Freedom may not be subtle and perhaps longer than it should be. However, it is also quietly effective and moving, drawing light on an important topic.

Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel) tracks and captures those involved in child sex trafficking and child pornography. While he does his job well, he also knows that this solves part of the problem. The pedophiles and predators are captured, but the children are not rescued. This hits him especially hard after he manages to save one child, a little Honduran boy named Miguel (Lucas Avila). Miguel and his sister Rocio (Cristal Aparicio) had been lured away from their father through offers of talent contracts by Katy (Yessica Borroto), a former beauty queen now working as bait for this sordid business.

While Miguel and his father are thankful to Ballard for the rescue and reunification, Ballard is still haunted by Rocio's disappearance. Miguel's childlike faith in Tim, down to giving him the St. Timothy medal that Rocio in turn had given Miguel to protect him, pushes him to expand his efforts from capturing the criminals to rescuing the children.

With the very reluctant blessings of HS, Ballard goes to Cartagena to begin his efforts. He is helped by expat Vampiro (Bill Camp), a former cartel financier who now seeks redemption by buying children and surreptitiously freeing them. Creating a cover story that Ballard is a Jeffrey Epstein-like figure who wants to create a selective hideaway for child sex slaves and their clientele, Ballard and Vampiro get help from the local police and a wealthy man named Paul (Sound of Freedom producer Eduardo Verastegui) to front the operation. While many children are rescued and the traffickers are arrested, Rocio is still missing.

It is discovered that Rocio was sold to Columbian rebels, so Tim goes into the jungles posing as a medic providing vaccinations to locals. Will his rouse work or will he be discovered before he finds Rocio?

I find the controversy surrounding Sound of Freedom very puzzling and troubling. To suggest that rescuing children from a horrific fate is somehow political is strange to my mind. The controversy is also, in my opinion, distracting from the actual film itself. Sound of Freedom runs a little over two hours long including the Special Message attached to the end of the film. 

As a side note, I wish this system of having a countdown clock appear before we get new footage would be used by the MCU folks so that we would know when or if we get a post-credit scene, but I digress.

Perhaps that Special Message where Caviezel tells us how Sound of Freedom was made five years ago but was all but shelved and encourages viewers to download a QR Code to pay for others to see it put some people off. I found it sincere and effective: more than one person whipped out their phone to get the code. 

It may be that earnestness both in the Special Message and Sound of Freedom that so bothered so many. It may be that Sound of Freedom has a vaguely religious bent that also bothered so many. I say "vaguely" because I did not see anything overt to suggest that Sound of Freedom was driven by any desire to convert people to faith be it evangelical Christianity or Ballard's Mormonism. Any furor about messaging in Sound of Freedom may be the viewer seeing things that they want to see versus what was there. 

In terms of the film itself I found one or two flaws. First is how it does seem to take a while to build up. At one point I did wonder if the child abductions and Ballard's early sting operations could have been trimmed or moved along faster. Same with the third act of Rocio's rescue from the jungle. It may have been as it was, but it did feel a bit like the story was being stretched.

The second was in Caviezel's performance. At times, he seemed too stoic and slightly removed from things. In a crucial scene where one of the pedophiles wants to take a young boy on the island, Caviezel's Ballard is striking some fierce indignation. While there is genuine anger from Caviezel as Ballard, director and cowriter Alejandro Monteverde (writing with Rod Barr) might have done well to show other emotions, such as fear.

However, what weaknesses Sound of Freedom has are made up for by other elements. Monteverde bookended Sound of Freedom by moving in to Rocio's room and then ending by moving out of it, a strong way to signify her horrific journey going full circle. The film should also be congratulated for taking a very serious and delicate subject and not sensationalize it in any way. When we get to Rocio's first rape, we get just enough to understand what will happen to her, then show her in a bathtub, obviously traumatized by the monstrous acts done. The audience understands what happened without having to go into grotesque detail. 

Monteverde also drew strong performances from the child cast, which is difficult to do. Both Avila and Aparicio did strong work as Miguel and Rocio. The film successfully resisted making the kids cute or sweet. Instead, they were innocent children put through horrific circumstances who still managed to survive and return to some form of normalcy.

Sound of Freedom also has an exceptional performance from Bill Camp as Vampiro. Camp does not make Vampiro into a saint. He drinks, he smokes, he wears boorish clothes. He is also shrewd and driven by guilt. In a beautiful monologue to Ballard, Vampiro recounts how he came to find himself as a de facto underground railroad conductor for the enslaved children. It is one that will break your heart. Camp's Vampiro is a haunted man, realizing the evil he unwittingly did and doing what he can to make amends. Far from perfect, Vampiro is relatable, and it is credit to Camp's skill that we are drawn more to him than the stoic Ballard. He gives the film its title when he encourages Ballard to hear the joyful noise of the liberated children despite not having Rocio be in that group. That sound Vampiro tells Ballard, is "the sound of freedom". 

It is unfortunate that Mira Sorvino was in a blink-and-you-miss it performance, which I think was a mistake. I also wondered why Verastegui did not play a larger part in the film. It almost seemed a cameo.

These are minor points (no pun intended). On the whole, Sound of Freedom is a sincere, well-acted film about an underreported subject. Based on the audience reaction, where I saw many people sobbing, the film succeeded in telling its story effectively. Would that all children bound in these terrible circumstances soon hear that sound of freedom.


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