REVIEW: The Eyes of Tammy Faye [2021]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 126 minutes
    Release Date: September 17th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Searchlight Pictures
    Director(s): Michael Showalter
    Writer(s): Abe Sylvia / Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato (documentary)

God loves you. He really, really does.

Director Michael Showalter‘s The Eyes of Tammy Faye is not about Tammy Faye Bakker. I wish it was. She’s quite the figure with a heart of gold only challenged in size by a wealth of naivete and trust. A televangelist alongside her husband Jim on a television network they built into the fourth most-watched channel in America, she seems to have truly wanted to shower every single soul put on this earth with her love. And success was her way to do it. The albums, puppets, interviews, etc.—her content was always heartfelt and honest. So much so that it couldn’t be saved from appearing immaturely idealistic or becoming infantilized when presented in context with Jim’s rampant fraud. To therefore lump it altogether does her a grave disservice.

That’s what Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia do, though. Their adaptation of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato‘s documentary of the same name places Tammy Faye’s (Jessica Chastain) earnestness on equal footing with Jim’s (Andrew Garfield) deceptions. The title would be improved by adding the word “Through” to the front since we’re actually being given his story from her perspective rather than her own. What was it like playing second fiddle to hubris? What was it like to be betrayed whenever she dared to act or speak in the interests of her beliefs that all people deserve love and Christians should never be the ones to deny it? That’s all interesting, but only insofar as it centers Tammy Faye inside Jim’s life. What about her identity and her accomplishments?

A prime example lies in the words used before the end credits that explain how Tammy Faye continued her advocacy for the LGBTQ community and AIDS awareness as if the film ever explained that was something she did. Yes, she’s shown championing a “love for all” message behind closed doors with staunch homophobe Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio). Yes, she interviews Steve Pieters (Randy Havens) on live TV to get his story as a gay Christian pastor out to the world. But all of that is again presented as points of conflict for Jim (he’s trying to win Falwell’s support and distance himself from his own truth) instead of honorable pursuits for Tammy Faye. They’re portrayed less as active advocacy than reactionary rebellion. She’s been stripped of autonomy.

Her strength is thus only spotlighted when it serves Jim’s rise. Tammy Faye is his cheerleader more than partner—goading him to stand up to the men he thinks are more powerful than he is despite reality proving the opposite. And perhaps that’s the biggest reason he gradually distances himself from her besides those times when he can exploit her genuine emotions for increased donations. Her unyielding love for him brought too much shame. The truth that her puppetry and voice was the driving factor in earning paying “partners” that were willfully paying for their lavish lifestyle (no Evangelical can be so stupid that they’re unaware they’ve joined a for-profit ministry) weighed on him because he knew he was nothing without her. God spoke through her, after all.

Using this tidbit as a major plot point (a young Tammy Faye writhing around on the floor of a chapel speaking in tongues ignites her passion for the Lord) exemplifies the film’s largest problem: tone. It often feels as though everyone involved agreed they were making a comedy except Showalter. This is surprising considering comedy is his thing. It’s as though he got a taste of the prestige life after helming The Big Sick (also a comedy) and wanted to lean further into that arena with a project that should honestly only be taken seriously by those who are still duped into giving their hard-earned cash to men who hate their poverty. Jim was a charlatan. Tammy Faye, no matter how pure, was a clown. That’s their appeal.

We don’t pity them. We don’t feel sorry for their demise. We want their demise. Jim intentionally stole from his parishioners, treating them as customers paying his executive salary rather than ears to deliver his faith. Tammy Faye naively let him in the belief that God granted them this power and thus approved what they were doing. The only sane person in this whole endeavor is her mother (Cherry Jones‘ Rachel Grover). She warns Tammy Faye that this road leads to ruin. She reaped some benefits too despite open eyes, but at least she never closed them completely like everyone else. The Bakkers deserved what they got—especially from this vantage point. Maybe I’d have more sympathy for Tammy Faye if the film had any of its own.

It instead labels her a patsy at best and blissfully ignorant at worst. It tells us that Tammy Faye’s altruism was merely the product of happenstance rather than a purposeful pursuit to champion marginalized communities. Because throwing money at them isn’t enough. The script thinking that forgettable lines of dialogue like “We built houses for the disabled” are enough to get us to see Tammy Faye as more than a kid who owns a candy store giving away free candy while millions go into her own pockets is the funniest joke of all. It’s a shame too because Chastain is very good. Her performance earns our empathy even when the scene does everything in its power to make us want to take it back. She’s victim and cartoon.

The former demands drama. The latter laughs. Showalter attempts to give us both without ever being able to deftly marry them into a cohesive dynamic. Constantly keeping them at war makes it impossible to know whether we’re supposed to be laughing with the characters or at them. Eventually I was simply laughing at the absurdity of the situation and the Evangelicals who suddenly cried foul despite volunteering their savings accounts while believing the palatial estates their heroes were buying with the money were necessary for God to finally gift them that same level of wealth too. And maybe that’s the point considering the stars and stripes-heavy finale. This is America. A country of hypocrites and opportunists prospering off the backs of those they pretend to help.

[1] Andrew Garfield as “Jim Bakker” and Jessica Chastain as “Tammy Faye Bakker” in the film THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
[2] Jessica Chastain as “Tammy Faye Bakker” and Andrew Garfield as “Jim Bakker” in the film THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
[3] Jessica Chastain as “Tammy Faye Bakker” in the film THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

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