“Biting satire” seems a strange pairing of words. In truth, effective satire should be less than biting. Biting is too aggressive, too blunt. Great satire should be more of a comfortable gnaw, something that is subtle, gradual, unnoticeable until the end. That’s when you should notice that the object of the satire has been destroyed completely. To stop along the way and notice the attack, the criticism, seems to deflate the power of satire. When the biting is just blatant criticism, not a clever play at making a point in an unexpected and artful way, satire becomes a boring and predictably blunt tool.
The film, The Oath from writer and director Ike Barinholtz, is all blunt tool; tossing all finer points of wit or subtlety to the side. The film plays like a two-dimensional cartoon medley of political ideas with all the finesse of Acme anvils. The characters within are not people, they are meat sacks representing 24-hour news. “In this corner we have Fox News, in this corner we have NPR, and what’s this? Here comes MSNBC!.”
No character dares to cross any lines of stereotype. Liberals are so laughably liberal that by the time the joint gets passed around the communal eye-roll of the audience could shift the gravitational pull of the Earth. The same could be said of the conservatives, so lazily conservative that all interest or investment to the story is gone. It’s not even the ridiculous adherence to the stereotypes that’s so offensive here, though, it’s the sanitary and safe way they are approached. No mention of any of the more terrifying elements of our current socio-political situation. No white supremacy, no xenophobia, no patriarchal rage, nothing. Even the premise of the film, the titular Oath, only skirts the toxic sense of nationalism that is polluting modern discourse.
Instead we get a film of cartoonish ideas, cartoonish violence, and cartoonish resolutions. When you have attacks with blunt objects, tazers, and guns that eventually result in the bloody participants finding a common ground that ends with a respectful nod as they go their separate ways, a layered, subtle satire that discusses the current socio-political trash fire is not what you have. You have, at best, a reductive and slight piece of popcorn entertainment that neither contributes or actually entertains.
There is no question that entertainment and art have provided some of the most vital and effective responses to the greatest vitriolic and turbulent political times in our human history, in fact one could argue that art is the propelling force of change in the face of tyranny. That is what makes films such as The Oath so disappointing. It is not that every piece of fiction should be expected to be world-changing or even necessarily concern itself with the tangible world. It is just when a work of narrative fiction so clearly walks to the edge of our current abyss, acknowledges it, and then proceeds to employ the tactics of the three stooges, but with less depth or bravado, well that can’t help but be disappointing.