Christian thriller 'Sound of Freedom' faces criticism for stoking conspiracy theories
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The film "Sound Of Freedom" is this summer's surprise box office hit, raking in more than $85 million in ticket sales. As NPR's Shannon Bond reports, the movie is being criticized as a vehicle for conspiracy theories.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: "Sound Of Freedom" is a thriller about a former federal agent rescuing children from exploitation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF FREEDOM")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why are you doing it?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Sweet land of liberty.
JIM CAVIEZEL: (As Tim Ballard) 'Cause God's children are not for sale.
BOND: The film, based on a real-life controversial anti-trafficking activist, is being heavily promoted in conservative media. It caught the wider world's eye when it earned almost as much money on its release day as the latest "Indiana Jones" movie. And a big part of its success is an appeal from its star, Jim Caviezel, who comes on screen at the end urging viewers to buy more tickets so other people can see it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF FREEDOM")
CAVIEZEL: Let's make this film a historic event and the start to the end of child trafficking.
BOND: Caviezel is drawing attention to the film in other ways. For years, he's been a prominent promoter of the false, violent QAnon conspiracy theory, specifically the claim that an international cabal of elites is abusing and killing children to extract a substance called adrenochrome. These wild claims have become deeply enmeshed with narratives about child trafficking, and Caviezel is pushing them on his press tour. Here's a recent exchange with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon about what's driving demand for children.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CAVIEZEL: Adrenochrome. The whole adrenochrome empire. This is a big deal.
BOND: Now, "Sound Of Freedom" itself does not contain any references to adrenochrome or other conspiracy theories. It was actually filmed before the QAnon phenomenon started. Angel Studios, the film's distributor, publicly rejects any association with conspiracies. So do Tim Ballard, the former federal agent Caviezel's character is based on, and his organization Operation Underground Railroad. They all declined or didn't respond to my interview requests. But recently, Ballard claimed adrenochrome harvesting is real. And his statements and Caviezel's have an impact, says Mike Rothschild, who wrote a book about QAnon.
MIKE ROTHSCHILD: It's being marketed to QAnon believers. It's being embraced by this community, and its leading actor is a huge part of the QAnon community.
BOND: Setting aside the QAnon cloud, the rescue story the film tells is also a lightning rod. Many of the missions Operation Underground Railroad describes are hard to verify or contain significant misrepresentations, according to reporting by Tim Marchman and Anna Merlan at Vice News.
TIM MARCHMAN: They're not whole-cloth falsehoods, but they reassemble things that are true or close to being true into stories that are just wildly and completely different from what actually happened.
BOND: Operation Underground Railroad has denied Vice's findings. On screen, "Sound Of Freedom" goes even further in fictionalizing Ballard's story, showing him single-handedly taking on a crime syndicate. The studio acknowledges taking, quote, "creative liberties." But these popular depictions raise concerns among anti-trafficking experts. They say they offer an incomplete portrait of a real and urgent problem. Elizabeth Campbell is co-director of the University of Michigan's Human Trafficking Clinic.
ELIZABETH CAMPBELL: Because trafficking is so varied and does span so many populations, it really tests our brain to not distill it down to some sort of this is what a common victim of human trafficking looks like. And by doing that, I think we make actual victims of human trafficking more invisible and more vulnerable to exploitation.
BOND: And she says they divert people's energy, resources and policy proposals away from where they're most needed.
Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.