Ike Barinholtz, the writer, director and star of the new comedy film The Oath, is a political news junkie.
He’s such a political news junkie that he drops the names of not only cable news hosts like Wolf Blitzer but also Washington reporters like this publication’s Asawin Suebsaeng in casual conversation. He also gave his friend Jon Lovett—of Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It fame—an important voice cameo in the movie that only other political news junkies will recognize.
The idea for The Oath, which arrives in theaters this Friday, came to Barinholtz during his family’s Thanksgiving dinner just a few weeks after the 2016 election. With “a little bit of bourbon going around,” he got into a heated argument with his mom and his brother. “We were all sort of blaming each other for the calamity,” he tells me.
When Barinholtz woke up the next morning, he thought to himself, “We were really getting into it and we all voted for the same person. If that’s happening here, what’s happening at other tables?”
With the election of Donald Trump, Barinholtz said he “knew that the holiday family table was forever changed and that the old maxim—‘don’t talk politics at the table’—is basically impossible now.” He adds, “If you are able to get through a holiday dinner without politics coming up in 2018, you have the most disciplined family in the world.”
The Oath is set at a Thanksgiving dinner in a slightly altered version of our reality. As we learn in the movie’s opening minutes, the president of the United States has called on all Americans to sign a loyalty oath to him. If they do, they will receive a valuable tax credit among other benefits. There is ostensibly no punishment for refusing to sign, but those who choose to protest the government’s action face harsh consequences.
Barinholtz wrote, shot and released The Oath all within a 10-month period, making it the first major Hollywood comedy to take on the Trump administration in such a deliberate way. No, the president in the movie is not Donald Trump, but the inspiration is clear. “I’ll put it this way, this movie would never have been made if it was President Hillary Clinton,” Barinholtz says with a laugh.
Best known for starring in movies like Neighbors and Blockers, along with a regular role on Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Barinholtz got his start doing sketch comedy on MADtv, where he was a cast member for five years starting in 2002. He’s still a big fan of the form and particularly enjoys watching Kate McKinnon play Jeff Sessions on Saturday Night Live (“That’s my jam”) and Anthony Atamanuik as Trump on The President Show (“He’s a virtuoso”). He recently dipped his toe back in that water, playing an animatronic John F. Kennedy in a sketch for Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America on Hulu.
The Oath is undoubtedly a comedy, but it also marks an attempt by Barinholtz to push political humor about this president beyond the surface-level commentary that can be found on SNL and elsewhere. In the process, the film morphs into a thriller that even verges on horror at times.
Barinholtz plays Chris, who along with his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish), is vehemently against both this Trump-esque president and the idea of the oath. Jon Barinholtz, Ike’s real-life brother, plays his on-screen brother Pat, who along with his girlfriend Abbie (the excellent Meredith Hagner of Search Party fame) represents an alt-right contingent of the family that has no problem with demonstrating their loyalty to the president. Other members of the family, including Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein as the third sibling and Saturday Night Live alum Nora Dunn as their mother, fall elsewhere within that spectrum.
While his actual immediate family all voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Barinholtz explains that he has relatives from Ohio who went the other way. “I have an aunt who I love dearly and we’ve gotten into many political arguments,” he says. Whereas back in the days of the George W. Bush administration he “used to be able to sidestep” politics with those family members, now he says he finds himself thinking, “I don’t know how you, my relative, can accept this. So it’s getting a lot hotter.”
For years, Barinholtz says he would avoid getting into political discussions with friends and family, but now, “it’s all I want to talk about,” he tells me. “We all are taking in so much more media than we used to, we’re watching the news more, we’re reading articles more.”
News addiction is a major theme of The Oath. It manifests in the way Barinholtz’s character is constantly either listening to a political podcast or getting alerts on his phone or sneaking into the bedroom to catch just a few moments of cable news during a family dinner.
Barinholtz is quick to admit that he is perhaps too “plugged-in” to the news cycle. He recalls one early morning not long ago when his wife was breastfeeding their daughter in bed and he was reading an article on his phone. “I turned to her, very solemnly, and said, ‘America is lost,’” he says. “And she was like, ‘Dude, it is fucking too early to be talking about this.’”
He believes that his character Chris is “on the right side of history” with his progressive politics and “is ultimately proved right within the space of 90 minutes.” But at the same time he “behaves terribly,” leading the action of the film to spiral increasingly out of control with some truly horrifying consequences. To get inside that character’s head, Barinholtz upped his cable news intake during the writing process—a terrifying prospect in itself. “That steady intake makes it really hard to focus on anything else,” he says.
Leading up to the film’s release, Barinholtz has traveled to red states to screen it for some “unabashedly conservative” audiences. “They really got what I was doing,” he says, explaining that he made a conscious effort not to portray his character as “this perfect hero” who is morally unimpeachable. “That’s a movie that no one wants to see.”
The Oath will premiere in theaters a little more than a week after Donald Trump sent his first “presidential alert” to every American with a cell phone. It’s just one of many actions by this president that Barinholtz views as disturbingly similar to the presidential loyalty oath at the center of his film. He also recently retweeted a Politico article about the “loyalty oath nestled inside the new NAFTA.”
Barinholtz arrived at the idea of a loyalty oath partially because loyalty is “so important” to Trump, but also because it was “neutral enough that some people could say in good faith, ‘This is fine, it’s like the Pledge of Allegiance, my kid does it every day.’” But others would think, “Are you joking? This is Stalin!”
“The crazy thing is that, as we got deeper and deeper into the process, his first week or two they had this macabre scene with the cabinet where they all went around in a circle and said, ‘I’m proud to work for you and serve you,’” Barinholtz says. “And then later he pinned down James Comey and was like, ‘Are you going to be loyal?’ Two months later there was National Loyalty Day, which is something that has been around for years but no president has given enough of a shit to talk about it.”
“So all these little moments were happening that were like life copying art, which was already copying life,” he adds, noting that “there were a lot of texts going around, like, ‘Can you believe this shit? It’s really happening!’”
Without spoiling too much, The Oath culminates in a deus ex machina moment that will likely feel cathartic for Trump critics in the audience. As someone who’s “not a fan of the president and has great concern about what he’s doing to the country,” Barinholtz thinks it’s “incredibly unlikely” that Trump will leave office before his first term is up.
“People who say, ‘Oh, Trump’s gonna quit,’ I’m like, what has he done ever that makes you think that?” he says. It will be “the greatest test of our democracy” if Trump is voted out in 2020, he adds. “If he is voted out and resoundingly, I think that is the kind of thing that can reverse course a little bit, which we really need.”
Barinholtz’s personal “fantasy” is that America tells Trump once and for all to “go back to Mar-a-Lago permanently.”