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"Based On a True Story"
Truth and myth in Sound of Freedom
Most people know that when a movie tells you it’s “based on a true story,” it’s going to tell you some things that aren’t true. We all accept this as part of the ticket price, because while we might be educated on the way to being entertained, we mostly want to be entertained. But speaking for myself, I get a particular satisfaction out of stories where the truth doesn’t need much embellishment to entertain. I don’t think I’m alone. We hunger for true myths. We love to walk out of the theater and tell our friends, “This is one of the greatest stories I’ve ever seen, and it actually happened.”
I walked out of the theater the other week feeling this way. I’d just seen the new film Sound of Freedom. The anti-trafficking thriller has emerged as a surprise summer blockbuster, after languishing in post-production limbo for several years. It’s similar to the movie Taken, with a key difference: It’s “based on a true story.” Jim Caviezel plays former special agent Tim Ballard, who quit his job to build an independent infrastructure for rescuing trafficked children. He called his new vision Operation Underground Railroad—unsubtle, but then subtlety isn’t the object when actual enslaved children hang in the balance.
The movie has enjoyed strong word-of-mouth marketing among largely conservative audiences. Naturally, this has triggered a flurry of mainstream media hit-pieces, all oddly echoing each other in an attempt to brand the film as “QAnon-adjacent.” Because QAnon types talk about child trafficking a lot, and this is a film about child trafficking, therefore…something-something. Also, Trump apparently liked it, so there. Caring about child-trafficking is “right-coded” now. Did you not get the memo?
It’s tempting to speculate about just what is motivating such coordinated hostility to a story whose villains are pedos and child traffickers. But at World magazine, I suggested that much of the angst comes down to the simple unspoken rule that movies conservatives like shouldn’t do well. More power to movies conservatives like, I say, provided they deserve their success. And I think Sound of Freedom is deserving. It’s a good script, well-acted, efficiently shot. It tells a compelling story. But how much of the story is true?
A lot of people are naturally asking that question, so Operation Underground Railroad has a page on their website breaking down the answer in detail. “Of course,” it begins, “like any film based on a true story, there may be some exaggerated or fabricated elements included for dramatic purposes.” Some incidents are, in fact, heavily embellished or conflated. But one pivotal moment, we’re told, is mostly true: the story of a small boy who allegedly gave Tim Ballard a dog-tag necklace with a scripture verse from one of the epistles to Timothy. The name was on the necklace in Spanish: “Timoteo.” The boy said it was a gift from his sister when they were separated by their abuser, symbolizing the hope of rescue. Ballard took it as a sign. And so Operation Underground Railroad was born.
You can find clips where Ballard tells the story in his own words, identifying the boy as a victim of serial pedophile Earl Buchanan. Here’s one example from a 3-year-old interview, around the 12-minute mark. Ballard is an effective storyteller. He paints a vivid picture: the perp caught at a point of entry, the 5-year-old boy on his lap leaping out of the van into Ballard’s arms, the child’s heartbreaking plea for his still-lost sister as he gives Ballard a tangible piece of holy writ. “I knew I had to go find his sister now. And we did, we got her. We got her out.” The film powerfully recreates the moment, which Ballard has said he told the filmmakers they might not want to include, because “no one would believe it.”
In fact, some people don’t believe it. And after some digging—which Ballard himself encourages as he tells people to “go look up” the Buchanan case—I had to admit that I wasn’t sure what to believe myself. At the very least, I found significant discrepancies between Ballard’s account and the documentation around the case. For one thing, Ballard appears not to have been present when the perpetrator’s van was actually apprehended, though he did arrive on the scene later to collect evidence. For another thing, the little boy was himself a California native whose family was known to the perp, not a Mexican child being trafficked over the border. Ballard claims the child was “taken as an infant” from his family, which already sits oddly with the piece of the story where his sister entrusts him with the necklace.
Most glaring of all, while the boy does have a sister, she appears to have been safe at home and able to give corroborating circumstantial evidence about the perp (see this San Diego Union-Tribune story). Buchanan never separated them—in fact, he would take both of them on road trips together. While the girl did claim that he once unsuccessfully tried to molest her, she doesn’t seem to have been among the dozen or so children he lured to his den in San Bernardino. And even those children were apparently being returned to their oblivious families between kidnappings, not trafficked and lost. They mostly belonged to tenants on property rented out by Buchanan himself.
Is it still possible that Ballard really did receive a necklace during a later meeting with the little boy in custody? Perhaps. But given that the whole story around its provenance seems to have been fabricated, how confident can we really be?
Of course, it makes a great story. A founding myth, if you will. You can even buy a replica of the necklace in the organization’s store, with scripture “from the original necklace given to Tim.” As a good card-carrying capitalist, I wouldn’t even mind this sort of thing too terribly much…if the story was true.
At the same time, I found myself less than impressed with various other complaints about the organization as I sifted through various hit pieces by Vice, etc. In the final analysis, the sum total of the accusations felt thin. The group’s sting tactics were controversial, but then sting tactics are generally controversial. There were also questions about financial transparency—fair enough, yet it also seemed clear that significant amounts of money have gone towards saving actual kids. While the organization itself has been honest about failed missions, even Vice couldn’t dispute that other missions were successful. There was another case involving a girl they called “Liliana” where supposedly Ballard had exaggerated OUR’s role, claiming they helped her escape when she really freed herself. In fairness to Ballard, I found his testimony before Congress about this case, but all he actually says is that she escaped, and OUR provided her with after-care. Perhaps he tells a different version elsewhere. Still, the whole thing just felt thin.
A three-part short documentary (begin here) tells the story of “Batman,” an undercover operator with a supporting character in the film loosely based on him. It’s clear that whoever this fellow is—we never see his face—he’s the real deal, and he’s telling us about real missions he’s conducted with Ballard. It’s fascinating to see Ballard through Batman’s eyes. One gets the impression of a driven, single-minded young man, impetuous perhaps to the point of recklessness, but nothing if not sincere. He appears to have legitimately risked his life multiple times in multiple sting operations. He adopted two victims as his own children after their rescue in Haiti. And while he now makes a comfortable living as a public speaker, he had no guarantee that he was going to find later financial success when he initially left Homeland Security. These aren’t the hallmarks of a fraud.
And still, a little voice in the back of my mind goes, But he did lie, though.
Ballard is Mormon, which could tempt distrust before his case is even heard. Mormonism itself is an elaborate scam, after all, founded by a certifiable scumbag. A scumbag so charming that true believers will insist to this day that he wasn’t a scumbag. People like Ballard, who’s said to have sometimes unironically compared himself with Smith. In another clip, he tells about an intense moment when he thought he might die, and he reached for his “tattered missionary copy” of the Book of Mormon, calling to mind “every miracle story, every angel story, because that’s what we needed—we needed an angel, we needed a miracle.”
I revisit the story of the necklace. Ballard sounds completely earnest. His eyes are an uncannily intense shade of blue. The interviewer reacts with horror and sympathy in all the right places. It really is a terrific story.
Oh well, does it really matter? another part of me thinks. We’re talking about unspeakable crimes against children here. We’re talking about bad, bad guys. In the grand scheme, isn’t Tim Ballard still one of the good guys? So maybe he fibbed about the origin story for his child-rescuing organization. Maybe someone told him you need to particularize your mission with a story about that one little kid you rescued, preferably involving some kind of tangible totem, or else your would-be donors aren’t going to tune in. Who knows? Who cares? It’s a myth. It’s doing what myths do.
Except it’s not just being presented as a myth. It’s being presented as a true myth.
“True myth” is C. S. Lewis’s famous phrase for the story of the gospels. This was his breakthrough on the way to conversion, when colleagues Tolkien and Dyson explained how the dying and rising Christ sits precisely at the intersection of story and history. The more he read, the more he was forced to admit that the character and texture of the gospels was unlike any other old myth he had studied. It had a quality like memoir, like reportage. It felt like someone was trying hard to tell you something true.
Some Christian apologists are unfortunately wedded to a kind of timid minimalism, where they’ll concede that the gospels could be riddled with fabrications and “literary devices” of the kind we ordinarily put up with in movies “based on a true story.” But that’s okay, they’ll blithely insist, because we can still be confident that we’re getting “the gist” of Christ’s story. I’m not a biblical inerrantist, but I consistently argue that it matters very much whether the gospel writers deliberately fudged it on the “details” of things Jesus did and said, in a time when “based on a true story” didn’t exist as a genre. An honest witness might stand up in court and make a few honest mistakes, and we could still call him reliable. We have more questions for a witness who bends the truth.
And I suppose this is why I care. For all that I can admire Ballard and his work, that all-caps “TRUE” in that fact versus fiction breakdown still bothers me. It bothers me precisely because it’s in a context where truth is supposedly being carefully distinguished from falsehood. It bothers me because it always bothers me when someone stares very earnestly into a camera and lies to me, however noble the cause.
That doesn’t mean I feel compelled to stop recommending Sound of Freedom as a movie. It’s still a good movie, and the reactions to it are still, by and large, stupidly politicized. I’ve met a couple of the people who produced it, and they seem thoroughly genuine. I haven’t met Jim Caviezel, but he also seems thoroughly genuine, even if he does go off on…odd tangents sometimes. The movie’s distributor, Angel Studios, has its own “fact or fiction” sheet which follows the same beats as the OUR page, including the necklace story. I pointed someone to it myself in a back-and-forth, before I’d gone down my own little rabbit hole. I would only point to it now with caveats. Still, I don’t doubt that it was earnestly assembled.
And of course, the movie succeeds so well precisely because it’s an uncomplicated story. There are good guys, and there are bad guys. There are little kids to be rescued. We want that story. We need that story. And as Caviezel reminds us in an earnest post-credits message, nobody has more power than a storyteller.
And still, I’m thinking about the movie that could have been. A movie about a very driven, single-minded guy, a guy who really loves kids and really wants to be a hero. Not a bad guy, at heart. Except he’s got this one problem: He lies, sometimes. Not just to bad guys, but to good guys. But only because he thinks he needs to. Only because he’ll do whatever it takes to raise one more dollar, to save one more kid. Only because, in his mind, nothing else matters. Not even the truth.
Of course, this is not the movie that was made, and it’s not the movie that would have sold. But what an interesting movie that would have made, and what an interesting hero.