Unlikely summer hit Sound Of Freedom opens new front in US culture wars
WASHINGTON – With superhero movies, video-game adaptations and sequels bombing and getting panned by critics, Hollywood was braced for another disappointing year – until an unheralded thriller about child trafficking upended industry expectations.
The surprise hit of the summer, Sound Of Freedom, has so far earned US$90.7 million (S$120.3 million) at North American theatres in just two weeks since its release – roughly six times its US$14.5 million budget.
The movie, released on July 4, was the second most-watched film in North America last weekend, behind Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, according to data from Comscore.
With its riveting take on the true story of a former government agent rescuing children from the clutches of Colombian criminals, one would think it would be the kind of movie that everyone could get behind.
But this is the US, where “culture wars” over gas stoves, Pride flags and The Cat In The Hat can end friendships and turn neighbour on neighbour – and where half the country can dismiss as evil incarnate a movie that the other half loves.
Conservatives have lavished Sound Of Freedom with praise for speaking to a section of blue-collar America which they say has been snubbed by Hollywood elites.
Liberals have called it a recruiting tool for the far-right that promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory about a cabal of paedophiles from Hollywood and the Democratic Party kidnapping children and harvesting their blood.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina called it an “amazing, gut-wrenching, emotional movie”.
“Wow. Wow. Wow,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas wrote of the film, urging supporters to see it.
And on Wednesday, former president Donald Trump hosted an event featuring a screening of the movie at his private club in New Jersey.
“What’s almost as interesting as the movie itself is the reaction it seems to provoke from the mainstream media that seem determined to tear it down at any cost,” said British thriller writer Will Jordan in a positive review posted to his 1.8 million-subscriber YouTube channel, The Critical Drinker.
“I mean, you’d think a movie that sheds light on the hidden nightmare of child trafficking would be a pretty admirable cause worthy of support.”
‘Word of mouth’
Shot in 2018 with funding from Mexican investors, the film tells the story of former US Homeland Security special agent Tim Ballard, who in 2013 started Operation Underground Railroad to rescue children from Colombian sex traffickers.
It has become a cause celebre for right-wing pundits from Mr Jordan Peterson and Mr Ben Shapiro to Trump.
The film was originally scheduled for release by 20th Century Fox, but that deal was cancelled when Disney bought the studio in 2019, paving the way for Angel Studios to step in.
“We’re getting messages from all over the country telling us about packed theatres, sold-out theatres, and spontaneous standing ovations for the film in numerous locations,” said Mr Brandon Purdie, Angel’s head of theatrical distribution.
“Seeing this film has become a must, thanks to incredible word of mouth.”
But the movie has been criticised for wrongly characterising the problem of trafficking and because of the controversy surrounding its star Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ (2004).
The devout Catholic, 54, has addressed several QAnon events and promotes the conspiracy theory that child trafficking rings drain their victims’ blood for the hormone adrenochrome, believing it to be an elixir that wards off ageing.
Mr Ballard has also flirted publicly with another debunked theory, that a major US furniture retailer sells children, tweeting in 2020: “With or without Wayfair, child trafficking is real and happening!!!”
Operation Underground Railroad has also been accused of exaggerating its role in child-trafficking rescue operations.
Criticism of Sound Of Freedom, which co-stars Oscar winner Mira Sorvino, has pitted the traditional entertainment media against the film-going public, with audiences awarding it a perfect score of 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, and an A+ on CinemaScore.
There were largely negative reviews from mainstream liberal outlets like Variety, The New York Times and The Guardian, which called it “QAnon-adjacent” or just plain dull.
“To know thousands of adults will absorb Sound Of Freedom, this vigilante fever dream, and come away thinking themselves better informed on a hidden civilisational crisis... well, it’s profoundly depressing,” said Rolling Stone.
But Mr Jordan sees hypocrisy in the criticism, contrasting the objections to the film with the support liberals gave Cuties, a 2020 Netflix drama accused of hypersexualising young girls.
“It’s a film that reminds us that even though there are a lot of bad people in this world doing the worst things imaginable, there are also still good men fighting to bring them to justice,” he said.
“And maybe that’s something we could all do with remembering.” - AFP