Trump hosts screening of Sound of Freedom, a hit with QAnon devotees

It was an outdoor movie with a difference. Sitting in the front row: Donald Trump, the former US president. Also in attendance: extremists and election deniers. On the big screen: a box office hit promoted by followers of QAnon.

Trump, who is running for president again, hosted a private screening of Sound of Freedom, a thriller about child sex trafficking, at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Wednesday night.

The film is not likely to trouble the Oscar judges. But it has been a surprise success in cinemas with both traditional conservatives and the far right. Trump’s seal of approval could give it a boost with such audiences that money cannot buy.

Before the screening, the ex-president praised lead actor Jim Caviezel as a “great star” who is “doing very well” and invited his former strategist Steve Bannon – “he can’t stand controversy” – to address the audience.

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Bannon, who hosts a popular rightwing podcast, said: “This movie can unite the country. It’s already united Jared, Ivanka, Kellyanne and Steve Bannon” – a humorous reference to bitter infighting that racked the Trump White House.

Other guests included Kari Lake, a former candidate for governor of Arizona and fervent promoter of the “big lie” of a stolen election, and Jack Posobiec, who has pushed bogus conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate”, which held that Democrats were running a child sex and torture ring beneath a pizzeria in Washington.

Sound of Freedom is based on a true story. It stars Caviezel as Tim Ballard, a controversial former homeland security department agent who tried to rescue children from sex traffickers in Colombia. Both men attended the screening at Bedminster along with producer Eduardo Verástegui.

Sound of Freedom’s religious overtones have struck a chord with evangelicals. At one point Caviezel – who previously played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – is asked about his motivations. He replies: “God’s children are not for sale.”

The screenplay never directly references QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that asserts Democrats are a cabal of Satan worshippers who traffic children for sex. But Caviezel spoke at a QAnon convention in 2021 and, while promoting the film on Bannon’s podcast, remarked that “there is a big storm coming” – a QAnon trope.

The film was released on 4 July and beat Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny at that day’s box office, although the Harrison Ford vehicle had already been out for five days, earning more on each of the first three. Still, Sound of Freedom was the second most watched film in North America last weekend behind Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning and is nearing takings of $100m, far more than the $15m it cost to make.

Sound of Freedom’s portrayal of child trafficking has drawn criticism from experts. Angel Studios, which made it, acknowledged in a recent blog post: “It is worth noting that the movie took creative liberties in depicting the different methods of child trafficking.”

The film has also become a flashpoint in America’s culture wars. A press release by the Trump campaign last week said: “Liberal media outlets like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Hollywood Reporter have refused to review the film, while publications like Rolling Stone, Washington Post, CNN, and the Guardian have trashed the film and mocked the millions of movie-goers who bought tickets to screenings.”

Sound of Freedom is picking up steam among Republicans normally quick to dismiss Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elites. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted last week: “Wow. Wow. Wow. GO SEE #SoundOfFreedom.”

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a rival of Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, posted on Twitter on Monday: “I watched Sound of Freedom and WOW. What a powerful film that reveals the horrifying reality that is human trafficking.”

Trump’s daughter Ivanka has also weighed in. She tweeted last month: “‘Sound of Freedom’ sheds light on the harrowing reality of #HumanTrafficking, awakening our collective conscience and inspiring us to take action for those trapped in its dark web.”

Ballard himself is a divisive figure. He founded the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad in 2013. Vice News reported in 2020 that Operation Underground Railroad’s rescue claims contained “a pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading”.

Ballard was appointed by Trump to a federal advisory panel on human trafficking. Verástegui, who is Mexican, was appointed to Trump’s advisory commission on Hispanic prosperity.