Ike Barinholtz takes on Trumped-up family drama in new dark comedy “The Oath”

October 11, 2018

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Ike Barinholtz, like many other Americans, had his family over for Thanksgiving. But after the turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, Barinholtz discovered a new element added to his Thanksgiving table: Trumped-up political arguments.

Inspired by a “spirited discussion” between himself, his brother and his mother at the dinner table, Barinholtz said he woke up the morning after Thanksgiving thinking about the new dynamic of his family’s conversations, and what similar events might have happened at gatherings across the country.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘Oh my god, if we’re all on the same side, and all voted for the same person, what in the world is going on at some other tables?’” Barinholtz said. “I knew the arena of the family holiday table had been changed forever. There was no going back.”

Set to premiere in Chicago on Oct. 12, Barinholtz’s new film — the dark comedy “The Oath” — takes the concept of the Thanksgiving comedy and reinvents it by working in the modern component of the hyper-aggressive political argument with a looming government crisis.

“The Oath” focuses on Chris (Barinholtz), a hot-headed liberal news junkie, and his level-headed wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) who learn of a new government policy asking citizens to sign a loyalty oath to the president. Shocked and appalled, they refuse to sign. But as the post-Thanksgiving deadline looms, the couple experiences pressure from their families as well as two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) who pay a surprise visit to the house.

Barinholtz said he identified with his character Chris, who is obsessed with the news to the point where he can’t resist indulging even during family gatherings. He likened the impulse to check the news to a coffee addiction. One, two, even three cups of coffee a day is fine and makes for a responsible and informed citizen. But drink 50 cups and a heart attack is right around the corner.

“I feel like some people go to that wormhole where they’re just nonstop obsessed with it,” he said. “It’s not a good way to live and, quite frankly, we don’t deserve to live that way. One of the messages to take away from the movie is that it’s okay to unplug once in a while.”

When Chris’ obsession with the news comes to a head around the post-Thanksgiving deadline to sign the loyalty oath, his comments rub his family members the wrong way, Barinholtz said. Chris becomes “insufferable,” he said, beginning a fight that ruins Thanksgiving dinner, yelling at Kai and telling his parents to “f–k off.”

Barinholtz said he wanted to make a film that showed all sides of the political spectrum. In addition to the liberal Chris and Kai, the movie features more conservative personas, including Chris’ brother and his girlfriend, as well as more politically neutral characters like Chris’ parents and sister. Despite Barinholtz’s real-life liberal tendencies, he said he wanted to depict both parties as fairly as possible.

“I think there’s a version of this movie where my character, who is the most liberal in the movie, is not only right, but he behaves great and he’s kind and he has a six-pack,” he said. “I don’t want to see that movie. That movie’s not true to life… I want to make a movie where people feel like they’re not being talked down to, regardless of whatever side of the aisle they’re on. I wanted to show all sides, warts and all.”

Co-producer Sean McKittrick, who previously produced films like “Get Out,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Donnie Darko,” echoed in production notes it was important that the script stayed as unbiased as possible, and did not lean too far to one side or the other.

He, Barinholtz and co-producer Raymond Mansfield were insistent no political viewpoint “should escape unscathed.”

“We felt it was important to show that we’re all going crazy,” McKittrick said. “It’s not just the
liberals, or just the conservatives. What’s going on is driving everyone nuts, and we made sure the film reflected that. The goal wasn’t to choose a political side.”

Barinholtz said the film began to feel more relevant and topical as time passed. During the writing, prep and post-production processes, he saw news stories that echoed the film’s script. For Barinholtz, events such as “macabre” cabinet meetings and the infamous James Comey firing reinforced the idea that “The Oath” is an important film for people to see, as soon as possible.

Mansfield, another producer of “Get Out” and “BlacKkKlansman,” agreed, saying it was important to get “The Oath” out quickly. Barinholtz actually began pre-production on the movie the same day he wrapped on the final season of “The Mindy Project.”

“The Oath, like ‘Get Out’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ is the type of movie that needs to be in
front of an audience as soon as humanly possible,” Mansfield said. “Ike’s screenplay tapped into the zeitgeist. It has that something special we look for in our films, that urgency.”

Besides Thanksgiving, another November deadline was also driving Mansfield, McKittrick and Barinholtz to create the film quickly: the midterm elections. Barinholtz said while the main goal of the film was to make people laugh, he hopes people will also walk away from the movie inspired to vote.

Barinholtz said he does have optimism for the future of the country, however. While recognizing his privilege as a white male, Barinholtz said he believes the United States should have hope because of the activism of a new generation.

“I see 16-year-olds on CNN saying ‘I can’t wait to vote.’” he said. “That’s something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. And I feel like as much of a chaotic mess things are right now I feel like there’s a new generation that sees it and recognizes it and just simply is not going to partake in that.”

Barinholtz’s biggest message for viewers of “The Oath?” Maybe call your brother.

He noted that while Americans have some control over the administration by voting or donating money, ultimately it’s impossible to completely steer who’s going to run the government. Despite this, he said, Americans shouldn’t let these external forces ruin relationships with friends and family.

“I feel like if we get to a place where we’re just simply severing all ties then… it’ll be harder to mend fences when there’s the day when there’s a totally new government or new president,” he said. “So I hope when people walk out of the movie they’re like ‘That was funny, and I was scared, and I should call my brother because we got into a big fight at Christmas last year and I called him an a–hole and that was wrong.’”

“America is bigger than Donald Trump,” he said.

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Twitter: @charwalsh_