If you know who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are, you no doubt have a (likely strong) opinion of them already formed. No matter what you think of the superstar televangelist couple and their multi-million dollar empire, there are things you don’t know about their life together. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” gives a history of Tammy’s humble Christian upbringing all the way up to her eventual downfall at the hands of the Reverend Jerry Falwell. It’s a true story that’s really not all that interesting, but it’s the real life flamboyant characters who make this a tale worth telling.
Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) rose from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. The pair met in Bible college, got married young, and traveled the country preaching a gospel of acceptance, love, and prosperity. The two were smooth talkers with a flair for the dramatic, true believers who recognized an untapped market and exploited it for financial gain. In the process, they actually did a lot of good. But religion and televangelism are a big, dirty business, and this is the story of their fall from grace and how they lost everything.
The early years of the Bakker’s coupledom are portrayed as too rosy and perfect, and the majority of this portion of the film is annoying. They smile, they giggle, they pray. It’s when the story gets into the creation of the PTL Network and we start to witness Tammy’s transformation (permanent eye makeup, outrageous gospel musical numbers, and begging for pledges on the air), and the scandals start to mount, that the film really takes off.
Director Michael Showalter doesn’t go into too much detail about all of the couple’s alleged wrongdoings, but keeps the spotlight on Tammy. She’s one of America’s most well-known pop culture figures of the 1980s, for good reason. She was an outrageous woman with big dreams and big money, who spent her life with a sincere belief that she was called on by her God to spread love through her singing. It’s this kindhearted side to Tammy that many never got to see, and Showalter treats this material with an earnest compassion. He does something I didn’t think was possible: he not only makes Tammy Faye relatable, but downright likeable.
This film is an overly-positive portrait of the woman to be sure, but it’s hard not to admire Tammy as she speaks her mind, asserts herself into the old white men’s religious club, preaches kindness to everyone, and challenges Christians to open their hearts to those many would rather cast aside, like homosexuals, AIDS patients, and others who find themselves discriminated against by devout believers.
The casting is as close to perfection as it gets. Chastain and Garfield adopt the mannerisms of Tammy and Jim so well that it’s easy to believe they are the real deal. The physical transformations are astounding. While the pair tend to overact (especially when it comes to scenes that require waterworks), it could be chalked up to their real life counterparts and their flair for the dramatic. I’m not fond of Oscar-bait performances that are based on real people, but the work here is commendable.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a typical biopic that’s engaging because of the performances, the larger-than-life true characters, and solid direction that captures Tammy’s views of the world exceptionally well, especially in the film’s rousing closing musical number.