Directed by: Ike Barinholtz/2018
Many celebrities were freaked out by the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016. Speaking for himself, director Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad, Blockers), that was certainly the case. This led to the creation of the extremely funny, yet darkly sinister Thanksgiving film, The Oath, which is Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut, which he also wrote and stars in alongside Tiffany Haddish, Jon Barinholtz, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Max Greenfield, Carrie Brownstein, Nora Dunn, Jay Duplass, Meredith Hagner, and Chris Ellis.
At a Q&A that took place after the film in Houston, Texas, Ike Barinholtz shared the extremely personal touches that make The Oath so relatable, even if you do not share his political outlook of the 2016 election. He related to us that Thanksgiving was always his family’s big holiday growing up. The idea of everyone coming into town, eating great food and simply being thankful for all they share was an important value in their household. Ike is a pretty good cook, and even arrived on set at nearly 4 am to cook all of the food himself, with a colleague, for the Thanksgiving meal depicted in the film. You’ll even see his character Chris, doing some of this work, including some impressive chopping work with a knife in the film.
What Ike was not prepared for, however, was that Thanksgiving 2016 would be one that found his family at each other’s throats over the recent election. He told us that his family has always been very diverse politically, but that they had never let it be an issue as they gathered. Yet, here they were arguing and serving as a microcosm of what he was witnessing nationally. Truly these were troubled times, and maybe this could find its way into a script. If it was true for his family, then how true would it be for many people who could easily relate. He told us how the script started coming together rather quickly, and how fortunate he was to assemble the cast and crew that he did, in such a short time to boot. The result is grounded in his experience, but serves as a timely allegory for our current political environment. Besides, he mentioned, what could be more incendiary than talking about politics at Thanksgiving? The result is a fantastic film that provides an endless amount of laughs, and a surprising amount of tension that you will not really expect, but proves to be surprising powerful.
Chris (Ike Barinholtz) and Kai (Haddish) are a progressively-minded couple living in the suburbs with their two kids. While watching television one night, the news reports that the current administration is going to be offering an “oath” that the people of America can sign, simply pledging their loyalty to the nation. The administration’s spokeswoman tells the reporters that this isn’t anything people “must” sign, but that there would be tax incentives and the like for those that do. The deadline to sign the oath would be the next “Black Friday”, or the day after Thanksgiving, in the following year. Chris and Kai swear that there is no way that they’d ever sign that document.
Cut to today, with the deadline rapidly approaching. The last year has brought much tension as protesters to the oath are being met with harsher and harsher military action. Homeland Security has created a new citizen task force who are even rounding up those who oppose the oath, says Chris, who is obsessively watching various news programs on cable, and listening to talk-radio in the car. Those he tells, doubt that, even arguing that they probably were just getting out of hand which justified the response.
Against this backdrop, Chris’ family starts arriving for the Thanksgiving holiday. He has promised his wife, and his parents (Dunn and Ellis), that he won’t talk politics (a condition of their coming), and that he will help make it a relaxing holiday. When his right-wing brother Pat (played by his real-life brother Jon) and his even further-to-the-right girlfriend Abbie (Hagner) show up, it seems that is going to be a harder promise to keep, even with his sister Alice (Brownstein) shows up also, who shares his more left-leaning ways.
The film does a great job of capturing the family dynamic, which provides so much of the comedic opportunity to reflect back to the audience what they’ve probably experienced with their own families on the holidays. Caricatures are aplenty, as this is a political allegory for our times, but each character is grounded by this strong cast to be ones that we truly recognize. Even though Ike Barinholtz admitted to his own personal liberal leanings to us after the screening, he did a good job of using the caricatures of the polar political extremes to prove that both sides equally love our country, and how both sides can take that patriotism to an equally bad place, which would cause us to violate every standard we profess to hold to. I will not go into much more so that I do not give away the escalating tension that enters the film, and how the back half of the movie is effectively intense and gripping as a result. Needless to say, I found it to be quite unexpected, yet powerfully effective in carrying the message forward.
The film is obviously a statement about the current state of “America first” nationalism being pushed by the Trump administration, as well as a statement on race relations. It truly demonstrates the natural destination by those on the militarized extreme right that would label anyone who doesn’t share their hyper-patriotism as enemies of the state. It also shows how those on the extreme left can push freedom so far to the other side under the banner of “anything goes under the constitution”. This is even to a point that assumes the moral high-ground while engaging in equally destructive tactics. What was equally surprising, and interesting is in how the film reveals which characters signed the oath, and which ones different. Their motivations were vastly different, but by exposing this, it helped humanize whatever political position one might demonize in a highly charged political environment like ours. Even those we disagree with are our sisters and brothers, our fellow citizens. Why have the dividing lines been so distinctly drawn out as “us vs. them”?
What ultimately emerges in The Oath is a notion that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of all of the political caricature, and that maybe if we take the time to truly celebrate a holiday like Thanksgiving, and truly pause to give thanks, that we might find our way forward together. Ike Barinholtz closed our Q&A time with saying how hopeful he truly is for America’s future and our ability to move forward. That is something both sides of the political aisle can pledge themselves to: moving forward together. Hopefully it won’t take signing an oath to do so.