Like millions of other Baby Boomers, I grew up at a time when TV was black-and-white, small, and shared by an entire, large, Baby Boom family. Half of the seven TV stations devoted their airtime to Golden Age Hollywood movies. Gary Cooper was long gone before I developed a crush on him, and World War II’s enemies were our allies but, inspired by films, when we played war, we re-fought Anzio and Iwo Jima.
Was it a “simpler time”? Not really; there were riots and assassinations. But Golden Age Hollywood movies were an almost sacred retreat. They were fashioned in accord with the Hays Production Code, influenced by Catholic activists. These films addressed sex, violence, addiction, crime, deviance, and poverty, but they did so with subtlety. Movies let you immerse yourself in big issues without corrupting your heart, mind, or nervous system. Entire families could watch films together. Adults understood the movies one way, and children in another.
Movies reinforced, rather than fractured, community and family. My parents were much older than I, and they were immigrants, as well, so communication was not always easy. But we had real conversations about movies. My dad’s family was from a part of Poland controlled by Russia. He and I had a serious conversation after we watched Nicholas and Alexandra. My mom, her friends and I debated what makes a good woman after I was scandalized by Scarlett O’Hara’s machinations. These older women, who had lived through immigration, Depression, and war, said, “When you get older, you will understand.” I was sure they were wrong; I now know they were right.
Golden Age films followed traditional storytelling rules. There was a protagonist, whose agency drove the plot. There was an antagonist. Stories had a beginning, middle, and end. This may sound simplistic but it’s not. The Odyssey follows this style, as do the Book of Ruth and Hamlet. Big ideas can be communicated in what appears to be a “simplistic” storytelling style.
Life is not fair, and some humans are simply more visually compelling than others. Golden Age stars radiated charisma. They personified archetypes. Working class striver willing to blur moral lines to get ahead? Barbara Stanwyck. Pure as the driven snow? Teresa Wright. Downright scary, but you’re not sure why until it’s too late? Bette Davis. Wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley? Wallace Beery. Probably will take you to hell with him but you’ll enjoy the ride? Erroll Flynn.
German composer Richard Wagner emphasized a “plunge into darkness” as a key feature of the theater-going experience. For me, watching films in a darkened theater with other people is a drug. That “plunge into darkness” calms my anxious and easily distracted mind. My fellow filmgoers’ laughter, gasps, and even walk-outs enhance my immersion. For a couple of hours, the world goes away, and our minds and hearts travel to an alternative universe, escape our own labyrinths, and live out a different narrative than our own. When the lights come up, if the film did its job, we will have gained something we can apply to the real world, even if it is only refreshed hope in our own ability to play the hero and a renewed belief in the possibility of happy endings.
Given my early experience, no matter how Woke Hollywood gets, I will keep giving Hollywood another chance. And so I did see three of the big, talked-about movies of the summer: Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Sound of Freedom, all within the space of one week. All three of these movies have stirred up their own hornets’ nests of controversy.
I want, at least initially, to experience movies as movies, not as the politics or personal life of the filmmakers. I wanted to experience Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Sound of Freedom as movies before I learned about them as social phenomena. I consciously chose not to expose myself to press about these films until I’d seen them.
I assess the three films by my Golden-Age criteria. I had a Goldilocks reaction to Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Sound of Freedom. One of these three films deprives its putative lead of adequate agency and a straight-line narrative, and allows a secondary character to steal the show. One film emphasizes technique at the expense of narrative. One film is just right.
Barbie was directed by Greta Gerwig and written and directed by Gerwig and her “partner” Noah Baumbach. Gerwig had previously made a big splash as writer-director of Lady Bird, a warm-hearted, Academy-Award-winning depiction of a mother-daughter relationship, and Little Women, based on the Louisa May Alcott classic. Barbie is played by Margot Robbie, who had previously starred in The Wolf of Wall Street and Bombshell. Ryan Gosling, who appeared in The Notebook and La La Land, plays Ken.
Barbie opens on a dismal scene. Colors are washed out and mostly gray and brown. Morose-looking girls in dowdy, worn clothing are in a barren landscape playing with baby dolls. Helen Mirren, in a posh British accent, narrates. Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” plays on the soundtrack. A very tall Barbie doll, in fact Margot Robbie in the classic 1959 striped Barbie doll bathing suit, appears. The girls smash their baby dolls. Mirren’s voice-over narration describes the arrival of the Barbie doll as a giant step in evolution for women.
This set piece is an homage to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001 A Space Odyssey. In that sci-fi classic, a monolith appears amidst primitive hominids. Subsequently, the hominids learn to use tools. The parallel scene in Barbie appears to suggest that girls playing with baby dolls was a primitive period that women evolved past thanks to the arrival of Barbie dolls. Film fans are delighted by this scene, and have compared it, shot-by-shot, with 2001.
The scene is ugly, tone deaf, and incomprehensible. Girls have not evolved past playing with baby dolls. Amazon has sold thousands of them in the past month. Playing with baby dolls is not an “unevolved” thing to do, or a sign that the child playing with baby dolls is imprisoned by “the patriarchy,” a word the film Barbie uses frequently. The scene can be interpreted as contempt for motherhood, and for women’s innate desire to nurture life.
But the scene makes no sense. Gerwig is a mother of two sons. Her previous films celebrate mother-daughter bonds. Little Women, both the book and the many film adaptations, is famous for its adoration of Marmee, the central mother character. Watch this scene from Gerwig’s 2019 version of Little Women. Devoutly Christian Marmee encourages her daughters to give their Christmas breakfast to a starving family. Later she produces a letter from the father of the Little Women. The girls are thrilled to get a letter from their dad. Ladybird focuses on the mother-daughter bond. One of the main subplots of Barbie the movie is the relationship between Gloria (America Ferrera) and her adolescent daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). Sasha is in the moody, difficult stage of teen girlhood, and Gloria is struggling to connect with her. By the end of the film, Gloria and Sasha have reconciled and hug warmly.
As Barbie draws to a close, the main character decides to become a human being. Ruth Handler was the creator of the Barbie doll. In the film, she’s depicted as a wise grandmother, and played by Rhea Perlman. When Barbie says she wants to become human, Handler warns Barbie that she must consider that humans, unlike dolls, are mortal, and subject to pain. Handler gives Barbie a vision of life’s ups and downs. In this vision, Barbie sees one scene after another of mothers and children embracing and playing together. Clearly, this is a positive side of being human – you get to be a mother and love your kids. In short, the opening scene’s depiction of little girls smashing baby dolls is poorly considered, even if it is a faithful shot-by-shot homage to Stanley Kubrick.
The opening scene’s idea that Barbie dolls liberated women is false. But this version of history is found in other sources. “When Barbie first burst into the toy shops, just as the 1960s were breaking, the doll market consisted mostly of babies, designed for girls to cradle, rock and feed … By creating a doll with adult features, Mattel enabled girls to become anything they want.” This claptrap is from the Economist no less.
The opening scene shocked and offended me, but given Gerwig’s celebration of mother-child bonds, I understand that opening scene as a miscalculation on the filmmaker’s part. It is one of many “Easter eggs” in the film, that is, references to other films and other works of art. Barbie’s Mattel boardroom is modeled after the war room in Dr. Strangelove, and when Handler meets Barbie, she touches Barbie’s hand in an allusion to God creating Adam as depicted in Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine chapel. Ken (Ryan Gosling) shouts, “I’ll see you on the Malibu beach!” an allusion to Saving Private Ryan. The movie theater in Barbieland displays a poster for The Wizard of Oz, and Barbie wears a gingham dress that echoes Judy Garland’s costume in that classic 1939 film.
The main plot of Barbie begins with Barbie (Margot Robbie) living in a Barbie-themed alternative universe. This universe is built of Barbie products: a Barbie dollhouse, Barbie car, Barbie costumes, etc. The colors are bright and sunny, with pink predominating. The set design of this movie is worth the price of admission. Everything on screen is stunningly pretty and whimsical. The minutest detail of Barbie products has been reproduced. Designers put hours of serious thought into questions like, “Should there be stairs?” The answer is no; dolls, manipulated by humans, float. And many Barbies and Kens don’t have bendable knees.
Barbie is happy, her fellow doll friends, all named either Barbie or Ken, are happy, and all is well. Perfect worlds don’t make for drama, so we need a complication. Barbie suddenly blurts out that she is thinking of death. Her friends are shocked, her heels hit the ground, her thighs develop cellulite, and she has bad breath. Other Barbies explain to her that she is a doll, and she is being played with by an owner who is thinking about death. Barbie must go to the real world to find her owner. For this trip, Barbie is offered a choice between high heels and Birkenstock sandals, between ignorance and knowledge. Barbie of course wants the high heels, and the ignorance. She is forced to take the Birkenstocks, and to enter the real world. This is, again, an allusion, this time to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, a perfect world Adam and Eve must leave when they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Gerwig has said that her attendance at a Catholic high school influences her art, and this plot complication reflects that.
This is a premise worthy of The Wizard of Oz, and Barbie could have been a classic. Rather than, like Dorothy, traveling from reality to a fantasy land, she travels from a fantasy land to the real world. Ken accompanies Barbie. In the real world, they discover that “the patriarchy” is at work. Barbie sees a billboard with a row of beauty pageant contestants. She thinks it is an image of Supreme Court justices. She thinks this because Barbie dolls can be both beautiful and judges or astronauts or president. In Barbieland, males and females are equal. In the real world, men run things. Ken likes this, and he returns to Barbieland and turns it into Kendom, a patriarchy, where males are dominant and Barbies serve Kens.
In the real world, Barbie meets with her owner, Gloria, who is responsible for Barbie suddenly thinking about death. Barbie, Gloria, and Gloria’s daughter Sasha return to Barbieland and overthrow Kendom. This overthrow is played for laughs. Barbie wants to be a war-between-the-sexes farce, in the tradition of Lysistrata, Much Ado About Nothing, and all those Tracy/Hepburn, Grant/Dunne, Doris Day/Rock Hudson flicks. For this viewer, Barbie’s laughs are too few, its lead too monotone, and its message too muddled for it to be a classic, but there are a few funny moments. My theater was full of little girls dressed in pink and their mothers, and I heard no laughter or other signs of approval, but no one walked out. There was no applause at the end.
Viewers are taking one scene very seriously. As Gloria, America Ferrera gives a speech about the challenges of being a woman. The speech voices the contradictions women must live up to, for example, “You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them.” I thought it said things that are true, but that I’ve heard said before, and it didn’t add anything to the discussion. I also found Ferrera’s delivery to be flat. In short, I think that the big fuss being made over this movie, both by its champions and its critics, is misguided. I’ll be surprised if anyone is talking about Barbie six months from now.
What I loved about Barbie: Ryan Gosling as Ken. Oh my deity but that man is adorable. The movie may be named Barbie but Gosling runs away with it. I never cared about Robbie’s Barbie. Robbie’s performance is one-note. Her eyes are wide, her attitude naive and, well, plastic. The plot never gels into Barbie’s story. She remains a naif reacting to outside forces: Gloria’s thoughts of death, and Ken’s adoption of patriarchy. Barbie’s one big choice, to become human, occurs at the end of the movie. Nothing in the preceding ninety minutes builds to this point. We didn’t get to watch Barbie’s journey toward this decision.
Rather, we’ve been watching Ken’s journey. While Barbie reacts to others, Ken takes initiative. Barbie is ordered to take a trip to reality against her own wishes. Ken, though rebuffed by Barbie, stows away in her cute little Barbie car. Ken chooses reality. Barbie rejects the footwear necessary for a trip to the real world; Ken comes prepared with the roller blades he will need when they arrive in Venice Beach. Barbie is flustered by the real world and requires rescue. Ken enthusiastically adapts to the real world and brings it back to Barbieland. Barbie didn’t create Barbieland, but Ken did create Kendom. Ken is given a power ballad, “Just Ken,” bemoaning how it feels to play second fiddle to Barbie. Ken, and all the other Kens, dress in Gene-Kelly-like garb: black slacks, black loafers, and black t-shirts, for a dance number that is a highlight of the film. When he begins to realize that Barbie will never love him, he insists that he is “Kenough” by himself. His story arc is simply more compelling than Barbie’s.
Ken is simple-minded, he shows a dogged, and unrequited, devotion to Barbie, and he’s vainglorious. He tries to impress Barbie by surfing on a hard, plastic, simulated wave, and injures himself. Barbie comforts injured Ken in a motherly fashion, but it’s clear that she doesn’t love him as he loves her. At the end of the film, he wants to live with Barbie in love forever. She leaves him to become human.
Rather than making Ken look ridiculous, Barbie’s, and the movie’s, dismissal of Ken makes him sympathetic. His unrequited, puppy-dog devotion to Barbie is endearing. He comes across as a determined underdog who can’t get no respect. And he’s played by Ryan Gosling, who, at 42, is so good looking it is unfair. It is unfair that all women can’t be issued a Ryan Gosling for their very own. It’s unfair that we humans are attracted to people based on their looks. And it’s unfair that delicious foods rob us of the chance ever to achieve Ryan Gosling’s muscle definition. In every scene he was in, I could not muster the energy to be outraged at patriarchy. I was gazing at Gosling’s biceps and abs, and wishing he’d remove more clothing.
Oppenheimer was written and directed by Christopher Nolan. The all-star cast includes Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Matt Damon, Gary Oldman, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Tom Conti, Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Matthew Modine, and Benny Safdie.
One of the things I loved about Hollywood Golden Age films was something called “invisible style.” The goal of invisible style was to immerse the viewer in the story. You forget that you are watching a movie. You believe the actors are the characters they are playing. Those behind the camera, from costumers to sound men to directors, were experts in their fields working at the top of their game, but part of their expertise was their invisibility. They didn’t want you to notice them; they wanted you to live the story.
Christopher Nolan, in Oppenheimer, practices the opposite of invisible style. I never for one second forgot that I was watching a Christopher Nolan movie. I never saw J. Robert Oppenheimer onscreen. I saw Cillian Murphy. I found myself thinking about his career trajectory, starting with Red Eye, a cheesy 2005 thriller in which Murphy played an implausible assassin. Rather than living the story, I was concentrating on Nolan’s choices as a filmmaker.
Some of Oppenheimer is in color. Some is in black and white. Scenes are very short. They are out of time sequence. Oppenheimer is young, old, young, old. He’s a young man trying to poison his teacher; he’s middle-aged and sobbing over his lover’s suicide; he’s an old man being interrogated by those wacky anti-Communists.
Characters and the actors playing them arrive and leave with minimal development. Oh, there’s Einstein. Wow, Rami Malek in a small part. Not quite sure who he is playing. Boy, that’s Robert Downey Jr? Took me a minute to recognize him. Gary Oldman as Truman! He also played Churchill. Guess next he has to play Stalin. Who’s going to show up next? Kim Kardashian as Eleanor Roosevelt? Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer, maintains the same flat, steady voice throughout. His face is largely passive. That may be an accurate depiction of Oppenheimer, but it makes for a monotonous characterization.
The movie is so loud I assumed I was sustaining damage to my ears. Then, of course, when the Trinity test is successful and a bomb explodes, the film is silent. In such attention-getting technical choices, Nolan telegraphed, “I am an innovative filmmaker and this film is a masterpiece addressing a very important topic. I will win awards.”
Given that the narrative is broken up into bits and presented in a scrambled fashion, there is no build-up, no climax. Every scene is played as if it is a climax. With all the intensity and self-importance, I felt a hammer thudding on my head. I was bored. I wanted to walk out but I was with another person so I could not. I cared less about nuclear annihilation after the film was over than I did before I entered the theater.
Manohla Dargis praises Oppenheimer in her New York Times review. She calls it “a brilliant achievement in formal and conceptual terms.” She praises the “lush color” and “high contrast black and white.” The film’s structure “brings to mind the double helix of DNA … Nolan further complicates the film by recurrently kinking up the overarching chronology.” Nolan practices “narrative fragmentation” creating a “Cubistic portrait … a dialectical synthesis.” At the Internet Movie Database, amateur reviewers who loved Oppenheimer praise it for its technical showiness. Amateur reviewers who hated Oppenheimer say that they don’t really care if a film shows off the technical skills of the filmmaker. They wanted a coherent narrative.
A more intimate, more coherent, more old-fashioned film could have moved me. Any number of incidents from Oppenheimer’s life could have filled a two-hour film and ultimately said more about atomic weapons than this three-hour film class. Oppenheimer, as depicted in the film, came close to murdering his professor. That incident alone could have been a two-hour movie.
A friend had only one question when I told him I’d seen Oppenheimer. He asked, “How did the film handle the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” I think that’s something Oppenheimer got mostly right. A group of white men sit around a room. They all appear to be gravely serious and to have given the matter a great deal of thought; they are clearly responsible people with an impossible burden that they never chose. They mention that an invasion of Japan would result in massive numbers of dead American soldiers and Japanese civilians. Dropping the bomb will save those people’s lives.
Oppenheimer himself is challenged by his fellow scientists. Hitler has committed suicide, he is told. We don’t have to use this weapon, he is told. But we must, he replies. The weapon exists. It is inevitable that other countries will eventually master the technology. We have to show the world how destructive this weapon is. Once we do that, people will be hesitant to use it.
I think Oppenheimer comes down so strongly on the ethics of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the film is close to a hagiography of Oppenheimer. It shows him in a positive light. Since he supported the bombing, and since he is the hero, the case for the bombing must be made.
Oppenheimer has something in common with previous films, including 1973’s The Way We Were and the 1976 film The Front. In those films, American Communists and fellow travelers are depicted as the intelligent people, sophisticated and glamorous, the compassionate ones. Those who oppose the Communist Party are rigid, lowbrow, paranoiacs. Oppenheimer takes that approach. Jason Clarke plays Roger Robb. Robb was special counsel to the Atomic Energy Commission. He interrogated Oppenheimer about his Communist Party contacts. Subsequently, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was withdrawn. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, who suspected Oppenheimer of being a Soviet spy, and encouraged surveillance of Oppenheimer and withdrawal of his security clearance.
Those who praise the film Oppenheimer cite its intelligence and sophistication. Its depiction of Roger Robb and Lewis Strauss as two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villains is unworthy of any such assessment. I knew little about Oppenheimer before watching the film but I recognized that Robb and Strauss were being positioned as stereotypical bogeymen. Robert Downey Jr. has said that Nolan told him to play Strauss as Salieri to the film’s Mozart, that is Oppenheimer; this reference alludes to the film Amadeus, which also misrepresented its protagonist and antagonist. Robb and Strauss, in Oppenheimer, are Hollywood cliches, the less intelligent, unglamorous, knuckleheads who, for no good reason, have a problem with Communism.
In real life, both Robb and Strauss were far more complex. “In 1951, as a court-appointed lawyer, [Roger Robb] successfully defended Earl Browder, the Communist Party leader, against charges of contempt of Congress.” So reports the New York Times. “Browder labelled him a ‘reactionary,’ though he was effusive in his praise of Robb’s legal skills.” That Robb, a Republican, was able to put his politics aside and faithfully defend a Communist Party leader speaks to Robb’s integrity and genuine commitment to American ideals. By all accounts Robb was hard on Oppenheimer. But he was not a cartoon villain.
Robert Downey Jr. depicts Lewis Strauss as a petty loser whose only motivation for persecuting Oppenheimer is a small man’s envy of a great man. This depiction disserves an impressive man. The film dings Strauss for pronouncing his last name “Straws,” alleging that he is hiding his Jewish identity in order to avoid anti-Semitism. In fact it was Oppenheimer who had far less involvement with his Jewishness. His childhood home was not observant. On a trip to the Southwest, he asked to be “Robert Smith” rather than Oppenheimer. He claimed he had no first name, but in fact his first name was Julius, which some judged as sounding too Jewish.
Lewis Strauss was from West Virginia, and multiple sources identify “Straws” as a Southern pronunciation of “Strauss.” Strauss was significantly and publicly involved with Jewish issues for his entire life. For example in 1919 he pushed American officials to pressure Poland in relation to the Pinsk Massacre. He served on the American Jewish Committee. He warned President Hoover about the dangers of Nazism in 1933. He tried to get the US to admit more Jewish refugees. His life of achievement is all the more remarkable given that he had to overcome early health problems and economic setbacks. The movie Oppenheimer aspires to be of a higher order than a cartoon melodrama. By presenting Robb and Strauss as the simpleminded folk who oppose Communism for no good reason, the film fails to live up to its own ambitions.
In contrast to malicious inferiors who are paranoid about Communist Party members, Oppenheimer presents audiences with high-minded, glamorous Communists and Communist sympathizers. Oppenheimer’s lover, Jean Tatlock, and his wife, Kitty, were both Communist Party members. Tatlock was the privileged daughter of a prominent professor. She had mental health issues, was a heavy drinker, and killed herself at 29. “I am disgusted with everything,” her suicide note said.
Kitty Oppenheimer was a heavy drinker and drug taker who spent her twenties going from man to man and adventure to adventure. She told a friend that she had gotten Oppenheimer to marry her by getting pregnant – while she was married to someone else. As depicted in the film, the Oppenheimers handed their son over to friends to take care of. A family friend said, “To be a child of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer is to have one of the greatest handicaps in the world.” Their daughter Toni is described as shy but level-headed. Her childhood included “years of dutifully obeying her mother, picking up cigarettes and drinks for her around the house.” A family friend said that “Toni and her mother were at each other’s throats all the time.” Toni committed suicide at age 32.
No, Jean Tatlock and Kitty Oppenheimer were not the worst people who ever lived. But Tatlock and Kitty Oppenheimer were not the smart, sophisticated, compassionate people who, because of these qualities, joined the Communist Party. They were not Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, the polished beauties who play them in the film, or the annoyingly noble Barbra Streisand from They Way We Were. They were privileged, confused and imperfect women who drank to excess, and joined an evil party. And Robb and Strauss were not lowly fools who didn’t see the value of the Communist Party. They were both impressive men who had good reasons to be wary of Communism.
In the film, Oppenheimer gives a speech to an applauding audience. The audience is depicted as over-the-moon joyful at the successful creation of a nuclear bomb. They applaud far longer than would be normal; they appear rabid. They appear to have no awareness of how devastating nuclear weapons are. Oppenheimer, alone of anyone in the room, has that awareness. As he gazes at the applauding mob, he imagines their faces stripped away in the blinding wind of a nuclear blast. Again, Oppenheimer is the lone intellect who recognizes reality; the rest of us are just sheep. This scene is not realistic. You didn’t need to be J. Robert Oppenheimer to be terrified of the bomb. Americans, in general, were terrified; see here.
Sound of Freedom
Sound of Freedom is an old-fashioned movie-movie. It deploys the features of Golden Age films. It handles a very difficult subject: child sex slavery. Don’t let that difficulty keep you from the theater. Freedom is rated PG-13, the same rating as Barbie. Like the films made under the Production Code, Sound of Freedom’s filmmakers know that the audience does not need to witness graphic horrors to understand that child sex slavery is an atrocity. They also know that when treating atrocity, less is more. They know that “a spoonful of sugar” lets the medicine go down.
Schindler’s List is regarded as a Hollywood breakthrough. It was a lengthy, high-production value film about the Holocaust. For this endeavor, filmmaker Steven Spielberg did not focus on a typical Holocaust victim, a starving, terrified, innocent soul mercilessly murdered by Nazis. Few audiences would want to see such a film. Rather, Spielberg focused on Oskar Schindler, a handsome bon vivant and Nazi party member who becomes a heroic rescuer of Jews. Audiences were ready for that movie, and that movie educated millions about the Holocaust.
Just so, Sound of Freedom is primarily an action-adventure movie. It is a straight-line narrative driven by the agency of a hero the audience can admire. That hero is played by a powerfully charismatic star. Jim Caviezel has received a great amount of grief from the Left ever since he starred as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. His overt Catholicism, right-wing politics, and refusal to perform sex scenes are frequent targets of criticism.
The first time I saw Jim Caviezel was in Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line. This epic depicts Americans fighting Japanese in World War II’s Pacific theater. Caviezel is Private Witt, an unconventional, and doomed, soldier. “Who is this guy?” was my reaction to Caviezel’s unique screen presence. He radiated innocence, vulnerability, and power. There was an ethereal, other-worldly quality unlike anything I’d seen except maybe for early Garbo, but with Garbo, you know she is acting. With Caviezel, he seemed really to be just being, just bleeding his soul onto the screen as if it were a spiritual emanation.
Garbo was acting, and so is Caviezel. We know that because two years after handing in an unforgettable screen Christ, he played a Satanic figure in the 2006 film Deja Vu. For my money, Caviezel is a more disturbing villain than Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. He really makes my stomach crawl in scenes like this.
I don’t care what Jim Caviezel’s personal politics are. He is a star. He brings powerful charisma to every role he plays. He is the bright light at the center of Sound of Freedom, a dark, necessary film. He makes it possible for comfortable audiences to confront the most vile acts and actors in Sound of Freedom.
Sound of Freedom centers on the efforts of its main character, Tim Ballard (Caviezel), to rescue two sexually enslaved children, Miguel (Lucas Avila) and Rocio (Cristal Aparicio), in South America. Tim is aided by Vampiro (Bill Camp). Vampiro had been involved in the drug trade. One day, to celebrate, he hired a prostitute, assuming that she was “mature” enough to sell herself. He discovered that she was 14. She had been a prostitute since age 6. She had an air of darkness, of sadness, and he realized that he was that darkness. Men like him were the source of this child’s pain, and the pain of millions of others like her. He contemplated suicide; instead, he began to purchase the freedom of child prostitutes. Vampiro describing his journey was one of the most powerful speeches I’ve heard in any movie.
Again, this movie will not rub your nose in agony. It’s an action-adventure movie that involves the viewer in classic motifs of chase and rescue, deception and victory, goods guys versus bad guys. The good guys win, at least in the case of Miguel and Rocio. Caviezel commands the screen, but Lucas Avila, as a child victim, is unforgettable. I want every good thing for that young performer. Bill Camp is terrific as Vampiro. Camp gives the impression that he’s having a great time in his movie, and his brio as a happy warrior willing to risk his life for a good cause adds bounce to the film.
Many years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Nepal is an up and down country, the highest country on earth. Fertile soil is constantly lost to landslides. When I was there, Nepal was one of the poorest countries on earth, unable to feed its own citizens without foreign aid. Even so, I encountered large families. One had thirteen children. One of those children was a boy. Everyone I mention this family to immediately knows which position the boy occupied in the family. He was, of course, the last one born. The family had daughter after daughter, continuously trying to produce a son who would survive to adulthood. The girls were expendable.
Daughters in Nepali families, especially the youngest, were frequently malnourished, a condition made obvious by their swollen stomachs and brittle, straw-colored hair. They often received no medical attention if they got sick. They were more likely to die. If they survived, a common fate was sex slavery. Nepal is a major source of child sex slaves and other enslaved persons. My superiors in Peace Corps somehow never talked about this.
I’m so glad that Jim Caviezel and his partners have made a compelling, box office hit that draws attention to child sex slavery. People who have seen this film will be inspired to donate to agencies addressing the issue. Yes, Sound of Freedom is a controversial film. The controversy does not affect the quality of the film. Just go see it.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.