Is the anti-sex trafficking film Sound of Freedom based on lies?

A conservative podcast looked into the film, which is being marketed to Christian audiences, and found its story wanting.
A man in camouflage stands in the jungle and stares off to the side with several people standing behind him
Jim Caviezel stars as Timothy Ballard in Sound of Freedom

I’ve seen several people rave on social media about Sound of Freedom, a new action film starring Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino that was inspired by the work of Timothy Ballard, a former government agent who founded Operation Underground Railroad, which combats child sex trafficking. The movie, which has been heavily marketed to Christian audiences, has become a surprising critical and commercial success. (Sound of Freedom currently has a 72% score on Rotten Tomatoes and has earned nearly $86 million on a $14.5 million budget.)

It now appears, however, that Sound of Freedom was based on a series of lies and falsehoods as revealed by an investigation by the conservative Red Pilled America podcast (via Peter T. Chattaway). Their conclusion:

When we first approached reviewing this movie, we were excited about promoting another conservative film. We’ve reviewed and promoted countless creative projects of Conservatives over our nearly five-year existence and were founded on the idea that good storytelling can fix what’s ailing America.

But when we learned that the two main victims in the anti-child sex slave “true story” didn’t actually represent real life victims of child sex slavery, we had to dig deeper. We found it odd that a man that has claimed to see so much child sex slavery didn’t have real life sex slave victims represented in the main characters of this movie. What we found was that the Sound of Freedom used a fake brother and sister sex slave story to scare the public into buying movie tickets. We find that reprehensible.

Tim Ballard and the filmmakers used the grotesque trauma inflicted on a five year old boy, then altered his story to make him a sex slave… and generated millions in the process. And as far as we can see, none of the ticket sales have been channeled to Earl Buchanan’s actual victims. The dishonesty in this story marginalizes true victims of child molestation all around the world.

Adding another layer of weirdness to this story, Ballard — who has been a controversial figure for years — quietly left Operation Underground Railroad even before Sound of Freedom was released.

In recent days, sources with knowledge of OUR began to tell Motherboard that Ballard had left the organization. By one account, he’d gone to donors in a state of upset, saying that he’d been forced out and asking for their help with a new organization. Another person who’s worked with the group said that to the best of their knowledge, he was no longer with OUR and was focusing on his work with the Nazarene Fund, a Glenn Beck-backed organization that has focused on religious minorities in the Middle East but has more recently operated in Afghanistan and Ukraine. A third person familiar with OUR fundraising said that they had heard just this week that Ballard had broken with the organization.

He nevertheless did a press tour for the film and is still featured prominently on the organization’s website.

Meanwhile, various anti-trafficking agencies have issued their own caveats about Sound of Freedom. For instance, they warn that the sort of dramatic missions and operations depicted in the movie are a far cry from the actual work of combatting trafficking and could, in fact, make things worse.

Rescue operations do happen, experts told CT, but they are often a small part of anti-trafficking work. Anti-trafficking ministries in the US do the less dramatic work of offering hot meals during street outreaches, having safe houses available that involve long-term rehab and recovery, educating and supporting children at risk of exploitation, training employers to recognize trafficking, and collaborating with law enforcement. Sometimes ministries’ work looks like poverty fighting, addiction recovery, or relationship building.


Some of the trafficking fighting methods depicted in the film — creating an island where Ballard and his team ask traffickers to bring children, or one character buying children out of sex trafficking to free them — could inadvertently create more demand for trafficking children and worsen the problem.

Some might wonder what’s the big deal here. Even if Ballard was lying through his teeth, at least Sound of Freedom is raising awareness about child sex trafficking — and that’s all that matters, right? And besides, it’s just a movie; liberties are taken for dramatic effect all the time, so why should this be any different?

As I see it, the issue is not whether Sound of Freedom took liberties or not; every movie adaptation takes liberties, even those claiming to be inspired by a true story. (For what it’s worth, Angel Studios, the film’s distributor, published a lengthy blog post explaining how Sound of Freedom deviates from Ballard’s story.) The real issue is whether or not the original story on which the movie is based took liberties with the truth — and if Red Pilled America’s claims are accurate, that appears to be the case here. (At least one person has pushed back on Red Pilled America’s claims, though.)

The truth is never served by lies, not even lies told to advance a cause that everyone agrees is good. Deception and falsehoods, especially those utilized for any sort of gain (be it money, fame, or power) erode trust and raise suspicions — things that can’t be afforded when it comes to something as important as saving children from trafficking and exploitation.

On a related note, I worry that because this movie is targeted to Christian audiences, and it’s seeing a significant amount of cultural success, Christians will be less apt to think critically about it because it’s giving them a Moment. Much like 2004’s The Passion of the Christ (which also starred Caviezel), Sound of Freedom is proof that “faith-friendly” movies can hold their own against secular Hollywood. In other words, this movie has become something to be proud of, not just for the filmmakers, but for the film’s audience, too. It’s proof that Christians don’t need Hollywood for entertainment because they can make stuff that’s just as good.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with niche audiences (like Christians) having media that both aligns with their values and achieves cultural success. But that doesn’t mean said media should be given a free pass when it comes to criticism; indeed, an audience should hold “their” media to an even higher standard, and not give it high marks just because it says what they like to hear. That’s when art stops being art and instead, becomes propaganda.

Update (7/17): This post has been updated with links to the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score and info about its box office numbers.

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