For someone (likely myself) whose only true experiences with aspects of secular media involved mere channel-flipping on lazy weekends, briefly stumbling on the chaotic circus that was TBN’s Praise the Lord, the only possible connection they may have with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, is with the chaotic spectacle its title character represents. Trapped in the middle of controversy, but unfazed by her faith, and more notably her optimism. A dramatized depiction of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker’s life story spun off from a revealing 2000 documentary of the same name, seeks to further enlighten that journey, give lead star Jessica Chastain an energetic workout.
Miss Chastain takes on the role of Tammy, moving rapidly with her character’s progression as events play out over a nearly 40-year span. From a young age, raised by a Pentecostalism family in the heart of the Midwest, the church certainly found her. And it never let go, despite persistent warnings from mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) to not dive in too deep. Those concerns mean nothing for Tammy, studying God in college, and later falling for the likeminded Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), whom they build a partnership in both marriage, and in a professional circumstance as stars in the CBN stable led by Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), and watched over from afar by the zealous Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). As the pair swim through the choppy waves of on-air evangelism, later building their own network (The PTL Club) from the ground up with Jim downplaying the heavy financial burden and Tammy’s influence continually keeping viewers (and their wallets) on their toes. And in turn, their marriage firmly clipped at the heels.
I must give it to Michael Showalter, here working off a script by Abe Sylvia (Dirty Girl). For a director whose range is wide for mainly sticking to the comedy genre, no one could masterfully pull off a massive swing from tender slice-of-life The Big Sick to last year’s middling The Lovebirds, then here to Tammy Faye, a laidback though densely packed biopic, the way he does. While one would imagine a much more serious lens could better speak to the controversy Mr. Bakker had built for himself, the dark business side, and a few loose strains of indemnity on his part. But then it sacrifices Tammy’s perspective, one of bright hope, the desire to break barriers (think the AIDS epidemic), and the prospect for unity, always getting Falwell’s goat, and being overlooked by her husband.
We see plenty from Garfield tackling the mysterious wild card that was Jim, steady, playful, but downright ignorant to reason, trying to stay in good standing under Falwell’s umbrella. Pushing back against the growing threat of the 80s “liberal agenda”, while continuing to misappropriate the funds they do receive from a loyal army of backers. Garfield doesn’t flinch, giving a straight face through the apparent wrongdoing. His performance works overtime to a degree, keep Sylvia’s screenplay grounded while the focus stays primarily on Tammy’s evolution as an entertainer, and more rampantly, as a human answering a calling.
Even if the point of focus does come off rather goofy instead of dramatic, Showalter maintains a consistent grip on the wheel, if only to poke holes in the armor that was televangelism in the 80s, and how viewers were either seen as supporters or pawns in the scheme. For my money, observing by osmosis as a youngster, it was always the latter. But individuals like Tammy could easily mask the ruse, be all for the heart, entertaining by compassion. Aided by the masterful prosthetic work of Greg Cannom (Vice), Chastain undergoes quite the transformation. As Tammy moves, so does Jessica, moving one step ahead to not lose her footing. Behind the on-screen persona does lie a complex, conflicted wife, sitting idle, lonely while her work crumbles amid her husband’s oversight. And certainly, as her self-control melts, developing an addiction to anti-anxiety meds, and dancing a slight infatuation with an upstart songwriter as she realizes her other passion in music. And yes, Chastain commits to her own singing here, possessing a stage-quality voice to further benefit her portrayal. Even as she’s shielded from the sinister edge both Garfield and the equally convincing D’Onofrio are pushing, she still brings in the naive innocence Tammy must’ve expressed in real life, both on and off camera. It may very well be difficult to top, should there be another biopic that takes a more balanced, serious turn to the events at hand.
Showalter clearly does not work in that manner, fixating plenty on the Bakkers as people, but certainly a little more on the grand circus they perpetuated into a wider industry with further spinoffs, warts, and all. Televisual preaching has never disappeared from our airwaves, the idea of profiting from (and for) a higher power has only adapted with the times. The only major change could be tighter control with the balance books. Even if the tone could have been revised just slightly to level out both the optimism and lack of morality, The Eyes of Tammy Faye still plays effectively as a welcome cinematic time capsule, from an era where the game was just shrewd enough for the sake of making money versus affecting lives. Leave it to Chastain’s depiction to remind us if the presence of a higher power means love, let it be to make a humanist difference. And for all the weirdness in play on this nontraditional biopic – may there be more like these in the future – thinking in human ideology, versus the economic, might just be a reasonable liberator. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently playing in theaters; rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse; 126 minutes.