'The Oath' Captures How Politics Is Ruining Our Relationships
Ike Barinholtz's new movie explores the horrors of Thanksgiving dinners in dire political times.
Photo of Ike Barinholtz by Gabriel Olson/FilmMagic; photo of Tiffany Haddish from The Oath
Ike Barinholtz came up with the idea for his movie The Oath, which he wrote, directed, and stars in, after a heated debate at his family's Thanksgiving dinner in 2016, shortly after Donald Trump had surprised everyone by winning the election. "We were getting like pretty heated, saying crazy shit like, ‘It’s your fault,’ which is an insane thing to say to someone about a presidential election," Barinholtz recalled. "But what’s funny is that we [all voted for Hillary Clinton]. We were all on the same side."
The Oath tells the story of a liberal news junkie named Chris, played by and based on Barinholtz, and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish), whose Thanksgiving dinner spirals out of control because he can't help but bring up divisive political arguments, specifically a loyalty pledge that the Trump-esque government has required all citizens to sign. Barinholtz's real-life brother, Jon, plays his preppy right-wing brother in the movie. About halfway through, the family comedy takes a dark turn and becomes a thriller, when they are visited by two government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen). Suspense and chaos ensue.
I called up Barinholtz to talk The Oath, the insane chaos of Trump era political discourse and to receive praise about some homemade English muffins I gifted him when we met at a screening of The Oath last week.
Ike Barinholtz: The English muffins were amazing—I want that to be on the record. They served two purposes: When I got home at night I ate one and then in the morning I ordered my eggs and I made an egg sandwich with your English muffin. I don’t know if this will make it into the article but that’s up to you.
VICE: It's really up to my editor.
If he wants to really take a risk and really make the story relevant he’ll talk about the muffins.
So you just got back from touring around the country, screening The Oath. What did you learn from talking to people who’ve watched the movie?
I was definitely not alone in feeling the feelings I had when I created it and when I made it. The mood of the country right now is very stressed and pretty combative and I think we’re in our little bubble, whether you’re in LA or New York, so it’s good to go to other bubbles and see that there’s people just like you who are just as angsty as I am.
We met on Twitter, and I imagine you followed me because I tweet about politics. I want to know a little about how you became the insane, liberal news junkie that you based your character on in the movie.
I was always into politics, I was always passionate about it. I’m sure if you went back and looked at some of my tweets from 2008 or 2012 I had pretty harsh words for the McCain campaign, the Romney campaign. But I really did take things for granted and I never really thought we would end up in the situation we are in now. About a year and a half before the 2016 election, and for a year after, my intake level of political news was peaking, it was just completely permeating my existence and I was reading every single article I could get my hands on. It was too much. It was scrambling my brain. I was letting a random news story that I had no immediate control over shape my mood, which, that can’t be good. I wanted to endow Chris, the protagonist in The Oath, with those qualities, because I was very aware of how passionate that character could be but also quite frankly how annoying he could be.
What did you learn about yourself from writing that character?
I was like, "I don’t like what’s happening in the country right now and I’m really angry and #Resistance, I’m gonna do my part," which I thought meant being up to date with every single thing that’s happening, tweeting about it, and just yelling about it to the people who are around me. Now I don't think it does much to just tweet and make your friends and family crazy, so what I've tried to do is pull away from that and I’ve tried to engage friends of mine who might have different opinions a little more substantially. Tweeting "Donald Trump is the stupidest, fattest president we’ve ever had" is not going to change anything.
The viciousness of online political discourse has permeated the way we talk about it IRL, to our detriment.
It used to be that you could argue issues, you used to argue with a conservative and say, "How can you want lower taxes for the biggest companies in the world?" Now you’re debating a mindset or a philosophy and it’s impossible to see how someone could think this person [Trump] is good and the conversation turns into, "You’re an idiot."
Why did you decide to write a movie about a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry because of politics?
I feel like a lot of people this year are going into this Thanksgiving with this—well, straight-up, a lot of people are just like, "This year I’m probably not going home. This year and probably never again, I can’t believe people that I’m supposed to be close to hold this belief so this year so I’m just not going to have the conversation." There’s fatigue and an ennui about where we’re at right now and the thought of sitting down and talking about it more will ruin the night. But I think we have to. It's important for people to go home and at least try and have these conversations because it is a very dire time.
I don't want to spoil the movie, but when the movie turns into a thriller and the family gets into a dire situation, they all join together in a nice way, and finally stop arguing about politics. Was that something you intended?
I wanted to show that this family, who less than 12 hours before was calling each other fucking cowards and assholes, when faced with true violence and what I think is fascism—my hope, in my little utopian world, was that all that bullshit dissolved. Because now it's all about keeping the family together and immediate survival. I do hope that's one of the takeaways that people have is that you always should be able to count on your family, and if stuff ever gets really bad and your family's not there because you shut them out, or they've shut you out and you've made no attempt to reconnect, we'll be in trouble.
Tiffany Haddish plays your wife. Her character was great—because she's hilarious—but also, because she's a good proxy for the viewer. She's bearing with her husband, who keeps starting conflict, and is very frustrated by him.
I based Tiffany's character off of my own wife. My wife and I could not be more closely aligned—she was nauseous on election night—but at the same time, she's aware of the fact that she has three children and a job and a family, and she's not willing to give all that up for politics. She's not willing to give up the joy that those things bring her because she's tuned into so-and-so's Twitter feed. And I was. I was making her crazy. I wanted Tiffany's character to be scared of what's happening in the world, and her husband is fucking crazy, and she's just trying to make sure that the ship stays in the water. I look at her as the moral compass of the movie.
One of the government agents, played by John Cho, is so great at breaking the tension of this really high stakes moment and adding softness and comic relief to a really stressful situation. You wrote the part for him, right?
I've known John for years, and every time I talk to him, I'm, like, calm. He's very likable and attractive, and when he's on camera, he has a very pleasing and calming effect. I needed that because, you know, the movie's tone is so crazy in the sense that we try to scare you and make you laugh. There's some pretty gruesome violence, and I needed to cut that, and the best person to do that is John Cho.
What do you want viewers to get out of The Oath?
The most important thing is that people are entertained. This is not a Michael Moore movie. I want people to laugh and to get scared and emotional. The message that's sort of baked into the movie is let's try to keep these connections with the people that were supposed to be connected here, whether biologically or through years of friendship, let's try to keep those [relationships] intact, and maybe make them a little healthier than they are. The other thing is let's be aware of what's happening, but let's not have it dictate every moment. We can't be robbing them every moment that brings us joy with news and politics. My perfect audience member walks out of this movie, and is like, "Holy shit, that was funny and kind of scary. Tiffany Haddish is good." And as he or she goes to check Twitter on their phone, they open the app and instantly closes it and says, "I'm going to call my brother."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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