I’ve been tracking the phenom that is The Sound of Freedom since it came out on Independence Day and beat the last entry in the Indiana Jones series, finishing number one for the day (handily) and pretty much making its budget back on day one. That turd-in-the-punchbowl aside, when the seventh (and penultimate?) entry in the Mission: Impossible series came out, it enjoyed about one week of better box office before Freedom started beating it again.
This should be kind of big news. I don’t think the movie is technically an “indie” since Fox owned it (and Disney buried it), but it’s certainly an underdog, featuring only two “stars”, Jim Caviezel and (Oscar™️-winner) Mira Sorvino (whose part as the hero’s wife is small but significant). It’s essentially an action film, though it fits uneasily into that genre. It is, however, an issue film, and successful issue films tend to shed light on, you know, issues. Especially when “based on a true story”.
But in our insane world of absolute polarization, coming out against child sex trafficking is somehow controversial, so none of this makes the news. I’ve been staying with my mother since her fall, and she’s a lifelong consumer of ABC news where neither the topic nor the movie has come up once, as far as I can tell. She’d never even heard of the movie.
All this is well and good, and enough for your humble correspondent to go see it though, honestly, none of this has much bearing on the quality of the film.
So how was it?
It’s…fine. Overall, it’s even good. And there are parts of it that are genuinely great. Caviezel’s performance, for example, is one of the best I’ve seen not just this year, but ever. In a lot of ways, it feels like someone took a ham-and-egger action flick from the ’80s and overlaid some realism both in terms of the action and in terms of the issue, which creates an odd blend.
You could describe it as Commando, but instead of killing everyone with impunity, if Schwarzenegger weren’t bullet proof and Alyssa Milano were being raped constantly. You see what I mean. It’s sort of odd.
But this is more cultural baggage than a flaw with the movie per se. Tim Ballard (Caviezel) isn’t an action hero, but more akin to the Machine Gun Preacher: A guy who becomes obsessed with righting a particular wrong. In his case, he’s a successful Homeland Security Investigations agent who rounds up MAPs (minor-attracted-pedophiles)—if you’re like me, you’re thinking “isn’t the government more on the supply-side when it comes to pedos?”—but never actually bothers rescuing kids.
Ballard becomes obsessed with reuniting one father with his children, and the story takes us through the rather good plan of setting up a sex club so that the traffickers bring the kids to them. This would have been enough for a movie itself, but after that plan goes off, there’s a second mission, deep into drug-cartel-controlled jungle, to search for yet another stolen child—itself worthy of a movie.
I’m glossing over the plot so as not to spoil anything, but this sequence—high tension sex-club-sting set piece followed by one-man stealth mission into the jungle—definitely weakens the film narratively. (Don’t blame me, it’s not my fault reality doesn’t follow a three-act structure.) We also don’t get enough of Ballard’s home life, which means that the tension he’s most obviously feeling (between saving the stolen children and his own children growing up without a father) gets short shrift and, perhaps ironically, contribute to the ’80s-action-movie feel, where home life is a prop the villains use to threaten the hero with.
I get it, of course. The movie is two hours and eleven minutes long. And as someone who complains about the length of movies, I’m a terrible hypocrite for saying this should be longer. Nonetheless, there’s zero resistance between him doing the first thing and the going on to do the second, which makes for an odd transition, narratively.
The strongest part of the movie is the acting. The kids are tremendous, with the older sister being a seasoned actress of ten years, and the younger brother being brand new. The dialog, when it’s natural, is also good but there are a couple of clunkers. The movie’s tag line, “God’s children are not for sale,” is actually kind of non-responsive in context. And the movie’s actual title is spoken when some children are freed they start singing to celebrate this. They begin with a rhythmic beat (it’s the exact opening of “We Will Rock You”) and one character says to the hero, “Do you hear that? That’s the sound of freedom.”
I suspect this clunkiness comes from having to shoehorn everything in to 125-or-so minutes, but it’s emblematic of the movie’s unevenness. There are some brilliantly composed shots in the movie which give it an almost noir feel at times, but a lot of it is pedestrian. The music is mostly quite good, but there’s a scene where our hero is teaming up with a couple of anti-heroes in a South American bar, and the background music reminded me of nothing so much as me noodling on the piano.
When I posted this at AOSHQ, somebody noted the muddled dialogue, and I’m embarrassed I forgot about this. The sound design was a mess. Caviezel is doing the gravelly mumbling thing and early on is hard to parse because everyone else seems to be speaking in a normal voice, and all are kinda-sorta at the same volume.
Much like last year’s Top Gun, it would’ve been unremarkable as an action picture 35 years ago. And as recently as 2018, when this movie was made, a message of “child sex trafficking is bad” would be considered so trite as to be not just unremarkable but exploitational.
It is not, thankfully, exploitative. The worst is left to your imagination. This was the Flower’s big concern about going to see it. That and, she’s been burned having supported “Christian” movies in the past. (I don’t think it’s expressly Christian but, I mean, the G-word is right there.) She and The Boy also called out Bill Camp’s performance as Vampiro. (Camp is a great character actor you’ll recognize but not quite be able to place.) As it turns out, the greatest barrier to their enjoyment of the film was having to sit in the front row, because every other seat was taken.
As for the squabbling surrounding the movie, I was put in mind of an online acquaintance I had known for over a decade who didn’t care for my review of Sully. That movie, it seems, had unfairly maligned the bureaucrats of the FAA. I pointed out that I had been watching movies for decades that unfairly maligned all kinds of groups (the religious, the Republicans, the conservatives, white people, gun owners, blue-collar workers, rich people) and that I didn’t think it was such a terrible sin if the FAA took a hit. He blocked me ever after.
So, hey, if this movie unfairly maligns sex traffickers (which seems to be the argument), I’m okay with that. And if you’re not, feel free to block me as well.