When I took history in high school, I remember learning about World War II. The clearest memory I have of this lesson was when we examined how the United States encouraged its citizens to join the army: with a red, white and blue poster with the words, “I want you for U.S. Army,” and a stern-looking Uncle Sam emphasizing the message.
Today, with the political climate of the United States as tumultuous as it is, nationalism is being similarly propagated by the government as it once was with Uncle Sam – especially when it comes to how the president addresses the nation. Comedian Ike Barinholtz, best known onscreen for his role as Morgan on “The Mindy Project,” sees this in his new film, “The Oath,” and wants you to see it, too.
“The Oath” is one of those movies that intentionally makes you uncomfortable. It follows the experiences of Chris (Barinholtz), a man who doesn’t hesitate to shut down opinions that aren’t as explicitly progressive as his, in an America in which citizens are required to sign a loyalty oath to the president. The movie takes place during Thanksgiving, a family holiday notorious for stirring political debate among families over turkey and pumpkin pie.
Barinholtz’s character is always watching the news and constantly wanting to talk about it, especially to the only member of his family who can deal with him at his most politically agitated: his wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish). When news of the oath is first presented, both of them are outraged — Chris significantly more than his wife, a pattern he follows throughout the film.
As the movie progresses, however, the audience members are forced to ask themselves what their perspective on the oath is, even as Chris’ stance on the matter assertively stays the same. After establishing the various characters of his family as they visit his home for Thanksgiving, Chris gradually escalates the political tension until the film’s breaking point, when two government agents come inquiring about an accusation that Chris forcibly deterred someone from signing the oath.
So far, the persistent political tension in every room that Chris and his family inhabit has made for an uncomfortable viewing experience, primarily because situations like these are all too familiar. After the climax, however, a significant proportion of the audience’s discomfort stems from confusion.
Too much takes place in too little time; the government agents arrive, Chris is assaulted and one government agent is assaulted, while the other — who is severely unhinged — unleashes his derangement. At the end of all these events, the audience is left with a furious but very tired and confused Chris, and a family that doesn’t really know what to make of the situation they were forced into dealing with. The oath may have divided them, but what came after pulled them closer together and forced them to face the truth that, under their government, they didn’t have a choice but to resist those who felt empowered solely because of their privilege.
Kai’s character is particularly interesting, because she is everything the audience doesn’t expect.
Throughout the movie, Kai doesn’t stray from the intelligent, pragmatic woman she is. She immediately shuts down Chris when he plays the “as a black woman, you should…” card on her. She rebels in her own way against the oath, choosing to keep her daughter safe above everything else. She knows what the government is trying to do and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family. Through her character, Barinholtz hints at the potentially anarchic future that the American government could be inching toward, leaving its citizens with very little choice but to obey.
Barinholtz has the ability to effortlessly make people laugh through his writing and acting. He developed his characters in a way that made sure each of them has their own quirks. But toward the middle of the story, much of the humour is lost in the commotion onscreen, which was perhaps his intention. The humour written into the film is subtle for the most part, making the audience appreciate it all the more.
“The Oath” places viewers in an awkward situation and encourages them to ask themselves important questions. The current political climate has clearly been pushing directors to translate their views and challenge people through their movies, and Barinholtz is no exception. The film he has created as a result is bold, unrestrained and necessary.
Anoushka Agrawal covers film. Contact her at [email protected].