A former colleague in EWTN’s Theology Department is both an avid reader and an insightful film buff. As such, he has an apt way of distinguishing non-fiction literature from cinematic efforts.
“If you want history, read a book,” he says in response to those who complain when a film is less than strictly factual. “If you want to be entertained, watch a movie.”
My friend understands that movies based on real-life persons and events should reflect basic reality, and yet he understands that embellishing — and even fictionalizing historical elements — is a longstanding Hollywood formula for telling a good story in the service of promoting larger truths about events and people.
To be clear, cinematic license should never be libelous, such as in The Scarlet and the Black, a great movie in many respects, but also one that reaffirms the defamation that Venerable Pope Pius XII was aloof and silent at best during World War II, when, in fact, he was rather proactive in rescuing Jews and even plotting to assassinate Der Fuehrer. So much for “Hitler’s Pope.”
But consider the 1998 cinematic blockbuster Saving Private Ryan. The “rescue” of Sgt. Frederick “Fritz” Niland — the real-life “Private Ryan” — wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Steven Spielberg portrayed it in his movie, as the Knights of Columbus affirmed in their monthly magazine.
But did the media and others excoriate Spielberg for his fictionalized elements? No. They understood that the famous director was taking legitimate creative license in portraying the larger truths of the horrors and heroism of war.
Did many brave young men give their lives on D-Day to capture a Nazi stronghold on the coast of France, as the film graphically depicts? Yes. Did many other soldiers give their lives for a noble cause, including saving their fellow soldiers and civilians, as Saving Private Ryan depicts? Yes. Did Spielberg take significant creative liberties in presenting the saga of Sgt. Niland? Also yes.
Sound of Freedom and Selective Outrage
Does the movie include fictionalized elements, even though it’s promoted as “the incredible true story” of Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security agent who left his job to rescue trafficked children through the Underground Railroad? Yes, as its moviemakers have acknowledged. Are those fictionalized elements at the service of the larger truths that human trafficking of children is wicked, widespread, and so should be rooted out? No doubt. So is the film raising awareness about this most reprehensible trade, and have Ballard and the Underground Railroad actually rescued children who were trafficked? For sure.
Nevertheless, critics have been in uproar, first about the movie’s alleged QAnon underpinnings, although Newsweek, to its credit, quoted the film’s star, Jim Caviezel who noted the movie was made in 2018: “I never knew about them [QAnon] while I was doing this movie Sound of Freedom; it has nothing to do with our film.” Anyone who has actually seen the movie would have to agree.
In addition, there are headlines like this one from Rolling Stone: “Why Anti-Trafficking Experts Are Torching ‘Sound of Freedom’: The new movie offers a ‘false perception’ of child trafficking that experts worry could further harm the real victims.”
Huh? How could a movie that dramatically portrays the evil of pedophiles and human trafficking “further harm the real victims?”:
‘I’ve literally been on four different group texts about the movie,’ says Erin Albright, an attorney who has worked in the anti-trafficking space for 15 years, including as a former fellow for the Department of Justice’s anti-trafficking task force. Albright says Sound of Freedom is ‘grounded in this sensational perspective of what child trafficking would be,’ rather than reflecting its grim reality.
Yes, most trafficked kids are adolescents, not younger children. And yes, those trafficked are more gradually groomed by their predators, who pose as friends of their sexual prey, in contrast to the more expeditious betrayal of parents presented in Sound of Freedom.
But are we dealing with child sexual predators both in real life and in the movie? Yes. And does the movie give us a glimpse into the nefarious minds of both the traffickers and their customers? Absolutely.
Nevertheless, Rolling Stone also argues that
the movie, and films about human trafficking in general, also doesn’t provide much insight into the extensive process of providing support to victims and helping them deal with their trauma after they escape a dangerous situation. This process can take years, says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, the nation’s largest coalition of anti-trafficking advocates and service providers.
A movie can only do so much. It shouldn’t be confused with a documentary, let alone a non-fiction book that treats a subject more magisterially. More to the point, Sound of Freedom does show that human trafficking has long-term negative effects on its victims, including when an anti-trafficking leader recalls his conversion after he realized that the prostitute he had just patronized years before, was not, in fact, 25, as she initially appeared, but a veteran (though wounded) streetwalker all of just 14.
In addition, at the end of Sound of Freedom, the nonverbal expressions of Cristal Aparicio’s character speak poignant volumes about the horrific ordeal she’s endured. She’s obviously been traumatized, and she even seems upset that her father hadn’t prevented these unspeakable crimes from happening to her. Still, she gradually embraces her dad and then her little brother, indicating that the healing process has finally begun, not magically — and instantaneously — accomplished, as in a fairytale.
Criticism for the Critics
Also, for all of the Sound of Freedom critics, where is their cinematic alternative? Sound of Freedom had been on the shelf for five years. That’s more than enough time to have preempted it with something “more accurate” and “less sensational,” yet which could’ve cashed in on the demand for a good movie on the subject.
Bottom line, critics aren’t fond of Caviezel, who endured a lot of occupational flak after he portrayed Jesus in The Passion of the Christ almost 20 years ago; and they don’t like director Alejandro Monteverde and producer Eduardo Verástegui, who have previously worked on projects like Bella and Unplanned, which obviously run counter to Hollywood dogma with their pro-life messages.
Sound of Freedom’s message that “God’s children are not for sale” is also an unpleasant reminder that the Almighty exists, that there is a moral law, and that we will all — one day — have to render an account for our life decisions. But replace Caviezel, Monteverde and Verástegui with Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, and the outrage about accuracy for the very same film never would’ve manifested, or not been nearly as harsh.
In any event, Instead of ripping on Sound of Freedom, critics should engage in genuinely righteous anger and begin a crusade against pornography, which fuels the human trafficking industry, and the related sexual objectification of women and men in PG, PG–13 and R movies. But that’d take courage seldom seen in Hollywood for decades.