Director, comedian Ike Barinholtz talks politics, finding humor in darkness

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Thanksgiving is close. This means that spending time with extended family members, who may not share quite the same political opinions as we do, is close. With pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes come angry fists, exasperated faces and frustrated attempts to change one another’s opinions at the dinner table.

Ike Barinholtz, writer, director and star of “The Oath,” recognizes this; in fact, he made an entire movie about it.

“It was shortly after the 2016 elections. I always have a Thanksgiving dinner at my house. After dinner, we were drinking a little bit of wine, and my mother, my brother and I got into a huge argument about the election and were starting to blame each other,” Barinholtz said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

He continued, “What struck me was that we were all voting for the same person. We were on the same side. The next morning, I woke up and I was thinking, ‘Man, if we’re fighting, what’s going on at other tables around the country?’ I knew that we could set a movie at a house around that week of Thanksgiving; the stress and the claustrophobia amidst this blooming political scandal would be funny.”

Barinholtz — most well-known for his comedy roles and screenplays — moved well out of his comfort zone in the politically rooted comedy “The Oath.”

“The word that I use to describe the era we’re living in now — absurd,” explained Barinholtz. “I knew that … if I was going to touch on some of these issues, it couldn’t just be a pure comedy. I think that would be a little dishonest and would not have given enough gravity to the situation. … I watched Trump’s press conference the other day, and while I was disturbed and scared, I laughed a few times at the ridiculousness of the situation.”

It’s clear that Barinholtz, like many of us, sees the humor in the darkness of Trump’s presidency. In this way, “The Oath” is one of the more realistic representations of the times we are in — and the laughter that is borne of frustration.

Barinholtz’s movie has several complicated, interesting characters with a variety of political ideologies. He defines Chris, his protagonist, as “the worst version of a liberal.”

“I think there’s a version of this movie that’s not good — where my character, Chris, the most liberal, is also right and behaves well and has dignity. I don’t want to see that movie,” Barinholtz said. “I want to really show how the news cycle and the political age we’re living in is breaking people’s brains a little bit; to show all these characters that are all over the political spectrum in the movie, to show them at their worst.”

He used the same reasoning to explain the character Mason, a terrifying government agent around whom a significant portion of the movie is centered. Mason’s characteristics are nothing short of extreme, but according to Barinholtz, everything is extreme in the United States’ current political scenario.

“I think people now are trying to put everything in terms of black and white, when the reality is that it is still gray. To get to that message, I need to show those extreme characters,” Barinholtz said.

The last scene of “The Oath,” during which Chris and his wife, Kai, sit down with each other with a piece of pumpkin pie and a glass of milk, is evidence of the kind of writer Barinholtz really is. He cares about his viewers and wants to give them time to slowly chew and digest.

“Despite what I say on Twitter, I am very optimistic about America. I think America is thicker and stronger than any one president, Congress or political party. … We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I wanted the characters and the audience to feel like that, in this moment right now, it’s OK. We can have a piece of pie, and we can remember what happened. All those characters are going to have scars — emotional and physical, and I feel like, after what I put the audience through, I wanted to have them enjoy a piece of pie.”

Barinholtz’s genuine desire for his audience to enjoy this story is further evident in what he wants UC Berkeley students to gather from this movie.

“I want them to know that they’re going to be entertained. They’re going to laugh, they’re going to be uncomfortable. I hope that the takeaway is we have an obligation to try our best to not let these external forces, which we only have marginal control over, permanently disable our relationships. College students on campus are surrounded by mostly — especially at Berkeley — center, center-left. And then they go home, perhaps in small towns, and they’re dealing with opinions that they’re just not used to. My hope is that we don’t permanently sever those family ties. … But most importantly, I want them to have a blast,” he concluded.

Fortunately for his fans, Barinholtz looks forward to creating one film every year after his fantastic first feature film. “It was a lot of work, but I’m like a C student, and I surrounded myself with A students, so I really loved it. If I am able to tell a story that I think will resonate with people, and if I can find cool people to be in it, then that’s all I want to do. … Having traveled throughout the country to show it to people was truly exhilarating, and I can’t wait to do it again.”

The U.S. film industry is in dire need of directors like Barinholtz, and if he continues to tell stories like “The Oath,” U.S. cinema could take a significant, refreshing and necessary turn — sooner than expected.

Anoushka Agrawal covers film. Contact her at [email protected].