“Based on a true story,” I heard from somewhere across the theater.
The familiar words had appeared on screen, and an elderly man had taken it upon himself to read them aloud, to the rest of a sizable audience seated for a matinee showing of the anti-child-trafficking thriller Sound of Freedom, starring Jim Caviezel. For the seasoned moviegoer, this phrase is a joke — we know that cinema will stretch almost any “truth” to the breaking point — and the rank insincerity of such a pronouncement is the foundation of the prankish opening titles of Fargo. But this crowd, I could tell, would view the events depicted over the next two-plus hours as entirely literal.
Caviezel, best known for being tortured to death in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, has become a prominent figure on the conspiracist right, giving speeches and interviews in which he hints at an underground holy war between patriots and a sinister legion of evildoers who are harvesting the blood of children. It’s straight-up QAnon stuff, right down to his use of catchphrases like “The storm is upon us.” Here, he gets to act out some of that drama by playing a fictionalized version of Tim Ballard, head of the anti-sex trafficking nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), in a feature film that casts the operator as a Batman-style savior for kids sold into the sex trade.
Ballard himself has dabbled in Q-adjacent conspiracy theories, such as the Wayfair trafficking hoax, while his organization has far-right affinities and a long record of distorting its botched “raids,” which rely on bizarre tactics like asking psychics where to find victims for rescue. Ballard, Caviezel, and others of their ilk had primed the public to accept Sound of Freedom as a documentary rather than delusion by fomenting moral panic for years over this grossly exaggerated “epidemic” of child sex-trafficking, much of it funneling people into conspiracist rabbit holes and QAnon communities. In short, I was at the movies with people who were there to see their worst fears confirmed. [Continue reading…]