There’s a classic moment in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s hapless character, is stuck in line at the movies in front of a pompous, bloviating know-it-all holding forth about the work of Marshall McLuhan. Exasperated and annoyed, Alvy reaches off-screen and produces, in the flesh, a very real Marshall McLuhan, who dresses the mansplainer down. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan says.

“Boy, if life were only like this,” says Alvy Singer into the camera.

Our time together in this column, yours and mine, will be like that McLuhan moment. But first some background:

This summer two of the most eagerly anticipated movies—another installment of the Mission: Impossible series and a final farewell to the Indiana Jones character—fizzled at the box office despite having everything going for them. Even more striking, both of these expensive, high-profile pictures were bested by a movie that cost about $14 million and has, so far, earned about $190 million in the domestic market.

That movie, Sound of Freedom, is a classic action-thriller about a disillusioned American special agent named Tim Ballard who quits his job at the Department of Homeland Security and masterminds a rogue operation to smash an international child-sex-trafficking ring. It seems like pretty down-the-middle fare, to be honest—a little bit Taken, a little bit Jack Ryan, in which a hero bucks the system to follow his intuition and save the innocent. This has been a reliable formula for box-office success since…well, since the invention of the box office. But Sound of Freedom has certain, um, peculiarities that make it an outsider kind of picture.

In the first place, the main character is a devout Roman Catholic, which makes him seem weird to a lot of people who write about movies for a living, despite the fact that there are about 62 million Roman Catholics in America. In one scene, he gives one of the at-risk kids his St. Timothy medallion for safekeeping, which is about the most Roman Catholic moment of the movie.

But that moment, and the Christian focus of the distribution company, Angel Studios, was enough to brand Sound of Freedom a “faith-based” movie.

“Faith-based” is the euphemism employed by left-wing media types when they want to throw a little shade at a project. “Faith-based” means religious, which indicates Christian, and which implies nutty fundamentalist Evangelical Jesus-y conservative stuff.

Of course, it didn’t help that the star of the movie, Jim Caviezel, famously played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s famously gory The Passion of the Christ, and that in the ensuing years Caviezel has gone more than a little QAnon in his political beliefs. In some of the press events for Sound of Freedom, Caviezel was thought to have been making larger claims about the very real issue of child sex-trafficking. Claims that involve pizza restaurants in Washington, D.C.; offshore facilities for the harvesting of something called adrenochrome; and (of course!) Hillary Clinton.

The movie premiered on July 4, and it quickly became known as That QAnon Movie to people who wanted to find a reason to dismiss it. Those people included the usual media liberals but also a lot of folks in Hollywood—for whom the 200 million Americans who describe themselves as Christian and the 30 percent of Americans who go to church regularly are an impenetrable mystery. That the movie was also making pots of money in the theaters only made it worse for them.

One of the two screenwriters of the movie is Rod Barr. He happens to be an old friend of mine. He and I have been on the board of a homeless youth agency in Hollywood for nearly two decades. And as I read more and more about Sound of Freedom, it seemed less and less like something my friend Rod would have put his name on. So I pulled an Alvy Singer and called him up.

“Congratulations on the movie! But I had no idea you were into QAnon stuff, Rod,” I said helpfully.

He sighed.

“I’m kidding,” I said.

“Look,” he said. “Here’s how the movie happened. Alejandro Monteverde, the director and co-writer of this script with me, came to me in about 2015 and said he had just seen a piece on 60 Minutes or something about child-trafficking and it rocked his soul. And he said we should write something about this. And then we were introduced to Tim Ballard as research for this fictional thing, and it turned out that Tim’s true story was much better than ours. So that’s when we decided to tell Tim’s story.”

Me: “And the St. Timothy medallion? The part that’s sort of Roman Catholic-ish?”

Rod: “We didn’t make that up! That’s real! We were trying to tell an important story, but we were also trying to make a good movie, a movie that would pull people in. Structurally, it’s a rescue-the-princess story, right? A hero story.”

Me: “So why did everyone freak out? If they made this exact movie with, say, Matt Damon in the Jim Caviezel role and it was distributed by Warners or Universal or someone—”

Rod: “And they all used to make movies like this, all of them!”

Me: “Right. But if they make Sound of Freedom with a different creative team, same movie, same everything, no one would have called it the QAnon Movie. Why is that?”

Rod was silent for a moment. “My wife’s a mediator,” he said, “and a really good one, and she deals with this all the time in litigation and mediation, when sides are entrenched. And there’s this thing called reactive devaluation that she talks about a lot. And it’s essentially that if the other side believes it, it must be wrong. Even if it’s not wrong, even if it’s true, it must be wrong.”

“In other words,” I said, “conservatives and religious people are deeply concerned about child sex-trafficking, so they must be wrong, it must not be a problem?”

“Exactly,” Rod said. “It’s human nature, I guess. But it’s so weird because I’m not even a conservative! I’m Roman Catholic, but I’m center-left, as you know.”

“I didn’t know,” I told him. “Which is strange, right? We’ve been friends for years and we haven’t ever talked about politics. Or faith.”

“At first, I rejected the whole ‘faith-based’ label,” he said. “I would tell everyone, ‘Hey, when we make a faith-based movie, you’ll know it.’ But now I figure, instead of trying to get around a label that’s going to happen anyway, just embrace it and say, ‘Let’s make faith part of our cultural discussion.’”

“Also,” I reminded him, “your next movie is literally about a nun.”

Cabrini, which opens in March 2024, is about Mother Cabrini, the first American to achieve sainthood. She began her work in the slums of New York, helping recent Italian immigrants, and eventually built an empire of service organizations that spanned seven continents. I’ve seen the trailer for the movie, and it looks great. John Lithgow, in particular, plays a terrifically villainous character. But still, it’s about a nun.

“They don’t make movies about nuns in Hollywood,” Rod said.

“They used to,” I said. “I mean, Julie Andrews in Sound of Music?”

“Right!” Rod said. “And Sally Field was The Flying Nun. And Whoopi Goldberg was a kinda-nun in Sister Act.”

“Nuns are so divisive,” I said.

Rod laughed. “You know what I think? I think as a country we’ve never been more divided than we are now, but we’re a lot less divided than people think.”

As I said, Sound of Freedom has made $190 million domestically and is on track to make at least as much in the international market, which suggests that Rod is correct. There’s a big, underserved audience out there made up of folks who will go see Barbie and the latest Avengers movie but who also want something else, something if not faith-based than at least faith-adjacent.

Boy, if life were only like this. And there are 190 million reasons why it might soon be.

Photo: Sébastian Dahl, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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