If you are an American who was alive during the 1980s, chances are, you are familiar with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The couple were the leaders of PTL, a Christian network that was on the vanguard of bringing religion to the television masses. And while Jim had his charms, Tammy Faye was the heart, soul, and face of their show, as detailed in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Though not quite a cradle-to-grave story, the film follows Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) from her early years in International Falls, Minnesota; to her studies in the 1960s at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where she met Jim (Andrew Garfield); to the start of their ministry together, featuring a puppet show; to them joining evangelists like Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) on television.
Each step of the way, the film shows Jim becoming more and more obsessed with the money-making part of televangelism, while Tammy Faye — while not immune to the material excesses that came with their lifestyle — trying to stay connected to the people to whom they were preaching. Her views, especially those that were friendly to the gay community, often clashed with those of Jim and others, and she used her position to advocate for those less-fortunate.
Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and written by Abe Sylvia, the film tries to cover a lot of ground in just over two hours — probably too much. The bulk of the story spans from the 1960s to the early 1990s, making it difficult for the filmmakers to spend too much time in any one stop. It’s easy to see why they felt the need to go through the Bakkers’ whole journey, but few of the scenes connect because the film is rushing onward.
Ironically, even though the film contains a lot of information, it seems like the filmmakers assumed that viewers would already be intimately familiar with the ups-and-downs of the Bakkers’ story, never taking the time to explain the significance they held during their era. The film delivers the basics, but often gives short shrift to notable events, especially scandals that erupted around the Bakkers in the late ‘80s.
However, the film remains entertaining because of the real-life caricature that Tammy Faye was. Sporting big hairdos, a high voice, and, most significantly, garish makeup, Tammy Faye stood out from the otherwise staid Jim, and the film leans hard into those aspects. It’s impossible to say that Chastain went over the top with her performance because outlandish is the only way to describe Tammy Faye.
The performances by both Chastain and Garfield are captivating, although Chastain has the edge because of the type of character she’s playing. They’re both aided by facial prosthetics that give them noticeable jowls, with Chastain’s usual angular face all but hidden. Supporting turns by Cherry Jones (as Tammy Faye’s mom), D’Onofrio, and Sam Jaeger round out a generally solid cast of actors.
Giving someone like Tammy Faye Bakker the biopic treatment was always going to be a tricky proposition, and although this film does a great job of showing her personality, it’s not as successful in explaining who she really was. A more focused approach might have yielded a better result.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens in theaters on September 17.