Sound of Polarization

One of the most frustrating things for me since 2016 is the open and absolute polarization of everything. Politics have always been polarized, and polarizing. In the United States, what is essentially a two-party system almost, by definition, demands it. I am not a social scientist, but it seems to me that the election of Donald Trump exposed the extremity of the culture wars and inflamed them to a white-hot intensity. (I think much of the bitter disagreement was already there beneath the surface, but Trump’s un-modulated bombast, both at unscripted rallies and on Twitter, seems to have loosed the ruder impulses of our discourse.)  

Obviously, the culture wars have been going on for a long time. The late 1960s and early 1970s were probably the initial earthquake over cultural and generational fault lines, before the moral-political divisions in the 1980s, but the aftershocks seem to be coming faster and more destructively. Now we have entered a new phase, where every single thing is a skirmish in the wider wars. And you can’t not be involved (or so it would seem). Because if your ideological enemy is doing something, it must be wrong, no matter what. And if your ideological friend is doing something, it must be right, no matter what. My team, right or wrong—which is a stupid and immature way to go through life.  

Film has never been exempt from divisions in the real world. Whether Communist, Socialist, fascist, or capitalist, films have been used to propagandize, preach, moralize, and allegorize in the midst of whatever current social struggle is happening. Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, as well as various minor dictators—not to mention U.S. controls on films in places like post-war East Germany or anti-Communist pressure on studios during the McCarthy era—have seen film as one of the most important vehicles of indoctrination. Even escapist fare comes from some perspective, if only to drive the narrative.  

I don’t know if it is a new development for ideological belligerents not only to recognize the cinematic criticism of their own positions, but to identify other people’s films as indicative of an odious position. But it does seem strange that every film has to fit some mold, and become a battlefield where everyone must fight to the death. Did we really not have films that everyone, from whatever political, moral, or religious standpoint, could enjoy together? I certainly have had valuable discussions about film with people whom I am sure would disagree with my political or religious standpoint. It is kind of nice to talk with someone without getting sucked into partisan positions. You should try it some time.  

All of this is a long prelude to some thoughts on the recently released Sound of Freedom (2023; in theaters). I hesitate slightly even to wade into the morass, because of the radical polarization over having an opinion, but here we go.  

First of all, I do not like to be morally shamed into seeing or doing anything. Jim Caviezel is a fine actor, but the marketing for the film prior to its release basically suggested that you were doing something to end child sex trafficking if you saw the movie, or paid for someone else to see it. You can then feel good about yourself because you saw a movie and were horrified at what you saw. We should be clear that marketing is marketing, whether or not you like the person doing the marketing or the thing being marketed. Very few people (if any) make movies in order not to make money. But I get uncomfortable when that marketing—of a movie—is connected with moral uprightness. Although movies can be effective in our visual and short-attention culture, I do not need to see a movie in order to be aware of something evil, or to work against it within my vocation.  

But our cultural polarization requires us to take a side. If you’re on the “right” side, you will see this movie (and love it!), and if you’re on the “wrong” side, you will either not see it, or you will hate it when you do see it. There is no middle position, either from the Left or from the Right. If you are entangled with more right-wing politics, then you have a moral imperative: see and promote it. If you are entangled with more left-wing politics, then you have a moral imperative to denounce and smear it. Generally speaking, I lean more toward the former, but there is no nuance. If you are not with us, you are against us. But Lutherans and other “confessional” Protestants (not to mention Roman Catholics) do not (should not) fit the easy political and social categories (see D.G. Hart’s excellent book The Lost Soul of American Protestantism for more on that).  

So the promotion of the film is a little strange, even if it fits with generally Evangelical tendencies in the culture wars (though the production company is owned by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the subject of the film, Tim Ballard [played by Caviezel in the film], is also LDS). But I find many of the objections from generally or explicitly left-wing publications strange as well—and some of them are downright bizarre. For example, this piece, published on, is basically one extended insult thrown at the sorts of people who might see the movie. “The audience toted jumbo buckets of popcorn and trash can–sized sodas as if they were sitting down for the latest franchise blockbuster.” Rolling Stone piled on with this: “[The members of the audience] were entranced by what they clearly took for a searing exposé. Not even the occasional nasty coughing fit — and we had no shortage of those — could break the spell.” We get it: the only people who will see this movie are obese Americans, probably unvaccinated, eating “buckets” of popcorn and drinking “trash cans” of soda. (For myself, I also do not like people eating and drinking around me, but I also don’t like watching movies at regular theaters with other people. Maybe that’s just me.) And like all fat, old, white people they probably all believe every conspiracy theory they’ve ever heard. (And we all know they only watch Fox News and like Joe Rogan and Matt Walsh.) Worst of all, they don’t like Hollywood, yet here they are, in a theater, watching a movie, which is making money! What hypocrites!     

What the critics on the Left apparently don’t realize is that condescension and scorn will only serve to justify these audiences in the righteousness of their positions. This is how polarization works: you only write for the home team, to get a knowing laugh out of your friends. Additionally, even if there are some valid criticisms to be found amid all their contemptuous sneering, this sort of “negative” publicity will only drive more of the same people to the theater and make them spend more money on the sorts of media that support or preach “their values.” (I went on a Tuesday night, which MoviePass tells me is the slowest movie night, and the theater was sold out. I don’t know how many of those had free tickets.) And then, with success, come more films. Because the ideological position of production companies and studios doesn’t matter; they’re not going to intentionally produce something they believe will lose money. Studios have always been risk-averse, and I doubt that “faith-based” studios are any exception. If Disney had put Jim Caviezel everywhere to promote the film as Angel Studios did, they might have made a ton of money. (I tend toward believing that most people are on the stupidity side of things, rather than on the conspiracy side.)  

Overall, most of the criticisms amount to some form of guilt-by-association (almost the entirety of this piece): Jim Caviezel is bad, and the people with whom he associates are worse. This is really just “Pizzagate” and QAnon conspiracy theories attempting to go mainstream—promoted by a sinister, shadowy conspiracy(!) of right-wingers. Then there are the criticisms of the subject of the film, Tim Ballard, and his organization, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR—which, by the way, is never mentioned in the film). If people dispute the statistics or the items presented as factual (like the opening credits scene, and the title cards at the end), argue against those. If someone doesn’t like the insinuation that rich and powerful Americans are paying for sex with children, show that it is not true (though I am sure that many of these same critics have no trouble believing that every other Roman Catholic priest is a pedophile). Also—again, if they could hide the contempt dripping from every word and headline—there do seem to be valid questions to ask and valid criticisms to make. For a perspective sympathetic to the anti-trafficking work, but critical of Ballard’s organization’s part in that work, I found this helpful. And this is a largely dispassionate account of the complications inherently involved in the rescue of trafficked children.  

The fact is, every movie that has a title card like “Based on a true story” is fictionalized. I actually dislike many biopics, in part, for this reason. There’s a reason why biopics like Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005), even if they’re good movies, always seem like a long-form version of “Behind the Music,” with only minor variations. They follow a particular dramatic line in order to be recognizable to audiences as films. None of these are literal depictions. Even documentarists choose which footage to use and the order in which they put scenes.  

But here’s the real issue for me: Sound of Freedom is a middling movie; not bad, not great. Among this year’s films, I would put it between Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant and Kandahar, with which it shares more than a little thematic ground. It’s a lesser Taken; a fairly typical Hollywood-style rescue movie. It could, I think, have been cut down. After the raid on the island, it feels like we’re starting a second movie. If the filmmakers had combined material in the later part with the earlier part, even if the timeline had to be adjusted (or left enough for next summer’s blockbuster season!), the film would have been much tighter. After the first fifteen, stomach-churning minutes, it has a little trouble keeping its momentum.  

The acting is generally good, even if it seems like Mira Sorvino mailed in her performance—which is probably not her fault, since she barely has any screen time. The kids (Cristal Aparicio and Lucás Ávila) may be the best actors in the movie, although Bill Camp is very good as a former cartel accountant, and Gerardo Taracena is particularly believable as rebel/cartel leader El Alacrán (“The Scorpion”). The movie looks good, although the shots seem to fall into a predictable pattern of medium-long to long shots alternating with extreme close-ups. I did like the opening shot and the closing shot, which is the reverse of the opening. In other words, Sound of Freedom isnot a bad film, but it’s not good enough to inspire such devotion on the one side and such hatred on the other. It would be nice simply to take a movie for what it is (I also think Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is better than the culture warriors think). Imagine if people watched what they wanted and supported the films they thought were worthy of support! Instead, every film becomes another tiresome opportunity to dunk on one’s enemies. Polarization and culture wars infect and kill everything they touch.