The Oath Has Plenty to Say About People Who Have Plenty to Say

Ike Barinholtz (center) wrote, directed and stars in "The Oath," a comedy movie about how a government-ordered loyalty oath and political leanings tear through a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The film also stars (from left) Meredith Hagner, Jon Barinholtz, Carrie Brownstein, Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis.
Ike Barinholtz (center) wrote, directed and stars in "The Oath," a comedy movie about how a government-ordered loyalty oath and political leanings tear through a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The film also stars (from left) Meredith Hagner, Jon Barinholtz, Carrie Brownstein, Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis. courtesy Roadside Attractions

The new comedy film The Oath would sound like a totally unthinkable dystopian world at any other time in history.

Except now.

The Oath, written, directed and starring Ike Barinholtz, who came to town for an advance screening and Q&A last month at The Angelika before its limited release Friday, Oct. 12, looks at a fictional but similar America where the president orders citizens to sign a loyalty oath to their nation or risk punishment from a newly formed security agency with shady methods of enforcement. The movie also takes place at Thanksgiving, a time that's ripe for fights among families filled with people who sit on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.

And it wasn't just "you know who" that gave Barinholtz more fuel to fling into his film. Some of the inspiration came from his own feelings about what's going on and the reactions they can spark even among people who love one another. A defining moment from Barinholtz's own life almost parallels a moment in the film between his character, a passionate but insufferable liberal named Chris, and his understanding, patient wife Kai, played by Tiffany Haddish.

"I drive my family crazy," Barinholtz says referring to himself and not his character in the film. "I said to my wife one morning and it's early in the morning and we're in bed. She's breastfeeding our child and I looked at the news and I said, 'This country is lost forever' and she goes, 'Hey man, it's 6:21 a.m. I'm breastfeeding a kid. Too dark' and I was making them crazy. I feel like there was about six months where my wife was like, 'I don't need to hear your political analysis right now. It makes me uncomfortable.'"

The same fuse that President Donald Trump and the rest of modern America's political class seem to light almost every day leads to explosions around Thanksgiving dinner tables all over the country. Barinholtz says it's ripe territory for exploring a subject that everyone seems to have an opinion on and are even willing to share when no one asked them for it.

"I knew I wanted this container of a family at a house during Thanksgiving week arguing about politics," Barinholtz says. "I knew that would be a funny thing and then I was wanting a deeper layer to it. I might have been watching Children of Men and I was like, 'What about this concept of loyalty to their government that's put out there and forcing people to sign an oath but strongly suggest they sign it?' So I started kind of thinking about it."

The only difference is that the political issue that destroys Thanksgiving has some harsh and dark consequences for Chris and his family as they find themselves in the middle of a tense situation they never thought they'd face.

The fight seems so familiar to anyone who goes home for Thanksgiving, because politics seems to have oozed into almost every pore of our personalities, he says.

"You used to be able to sidestep or avoid a political conversation at the holiday table and look, the reality is you still can, but you have to be incredibly disciplined and you have to have an agreement with everyone at the table and that's not really funny," Barinholtz says. "That's not really organic and the thing is that you used to be able to say, 'Oh well, you know George Bush did this or Barack Obama did this,' and maybe you get a little hot in under a second, but then you could pivot to the Cowboys or you could pivot to the last movie you saw."

One of the film's strongest assets are the characters both for the comedy and the message behind the whole bloody affair. Barinholtz says he made sure to sure to present a politicallly divisive family in which even characters who think they are acting the noblest in the face of tyranny can also be the most biting and obnoxious.

"The bad version of this movie is a partisan hack fest," Barinholtz says. "There's a version of this where my character is the most liberal and the most noble and he's right and he's fighting the good fight and of course, that would be the most boring movie of all time. So I'm taking one side, but I'm showing both sides of bad behavior in the face of this and he's the most liberal caricature. He's insufferable and really the worst and ruins the holiday."

Inevitably, Barinholtz says he gets viewers who come up to him to complain about the portrayal of people who might identify with their political leanings. At a recent screening in Austin, a woman came up to him after the movie to say she enjoyed it but also to ask him, "Do you think some of the conservative characters were over the top?"

"I said, 'Well, yeah, I think everyone is over the top just because of the tone of the story,'" he says. "She walked away and about 30 minutes later, she came back and introduced herself again and said, 'I love the movie' and that she works for the Governor [Greg Abbott]. It was so great because she was like, 'I really am going to try to bring people from my office to come see it.'"

It helps that Barinholtz's cautionary tale is a comedy at its core and the cast is stacked with talents like Haddish, Carrie Brownstein and Nora Dunn who can deliver serious drama and know how to use the mechanics of comedy.

"Having those people, I knew they could turn a joke and they could kill a line," he says. "I'd seen them all do just enough to know that they could pull off those big moments."

One of the most interesting casting choices is Chris' brother-in-law Pat, who's played by Barinholtz's real brother Jon Barinholtz; he also plays Marcus White on NBC's Superstore. Ike Barinholtz says he's not only a gifted actor, but it was also a rare chance to cast someone with whom he could elevate the tension naturally. Ike says Jon was perfect for it because they have a long relationship of good and bad moments — like when Ike "threw a bag of dimes in 1987 and broke a window and then blamed him [Jon] for it."

"I knew because our characters are so combative that I could really push him and he would annoy me," Barinholtz says. "So when my mom saw it, she said, 'I know there are scenes where you were very mad at Jonathan.' Yes and vice versa."

The Oath is also being produced by the same people who fronted some big, entertaining hits with socially conscious themes like director Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror thriller Get Out and Spike Lee's blaxploitation-infused dramatic comedy BlacKkKlansman. Producer Sean McKittrick said in The Hollywood Reporter that Barinholtz's film has been characterized as the final piece of a trilogy along with Get Out and BlacKkKlansman as a series of sharply satiric and entertaining tales that are rewiring the Hollywood movie-making machine.

"The message of the movie is really that we have to try our best to not let these external forces that we ultimately have no control over disrupt or permanently disrupt our internal units," Barinholtz says. "There will be a new president one day and other people will hate him but you know, I am optimistic about the country and I do think we will come out on the other side of this and it will be really good if when we do come out the other side that we haven't severed every relationship by then." 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.