The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the new film from Michael Showalter featuring a transformed Jessica Chastain as the unforgettable Tammy Faye Bakker, has an unenviable task. Based upon the 2000 documentary of the same name, the film seeks to find a way to portray the quirky humanization of its titular character that the documentary pulled off, while criticizing the excesses of these mavens of faith-based television. It also manages to be funny. It is a tightrope that perhaps only a director like Showalter could pull off, and in many ways, it succeeds.
However, any viewer with even a passing knowledge of the events that led to the dissolution of PTL will smell something not quite right here. While The Eyes Of Tammy Faye features some incredibly insightful subtext and makes a justifiable villain of the truly awful Jerry Falwell, it makes the same mistake as the documentary it is based on by allowing the quirky charm of its subjects to obscure some of the truly dark aspects of its story.
Let me be clear after so harsh a criticism: there is a lot to love about this strange, comedic biopic. The documentary, which serves as the primary text for the film, has an almost impenetrably campy tone which insists on allowing Tammy Faye, and to a lesser extent, Jim, to defend themselves, painting Jerry Falwell as the true villain of everything that happened to them. This narrative is sold masterfully by the film, but Showalter is no fool when it comes to the extent of the monetary excesses of his subjects, nor to the various ways both Bakkers are living lives of illusion. At every available opportunity, he counterposes their feelings of calling, mission, and holiness with examples of their economic excess. Compared to many of their contemporaries coming up, the Bakkers seem to have actually been good at this stuff, and had some kind of actual compassion for people. That said, the film reminds us how incredibly profitable the Bakker enterprise was, and how often they were more than willing to manipulate folks to get their money and spend it on extravagant nonsense. The visual cues used to remind us of these ridiculous, capitalist extremes are quite innovative and interesting. Still, considering the amount of information we now know about PTL, it feels insufficient.
That is not to denigrate the quality of the filmmaking on display. While I am very familiar with Showalter’s television work, I am largely unfamiliar with his feature film directing. This film moves with a dynamic energy that is hard to deny. The focus on Tammy Faye is a brilliant move, partly because of the truly incredible performance here by Jessica Chastain. Chastain not only focuses on the quirks that made Tammy Faye unique, but also some of the more subtle habits that may seem less obvious. She doesn’t ever quite reach the sheer volume of shrill that Tammy Faye was capable of, but she finds a balance between endearing and enduring that says something for the character.
Garfield as Jim Bakker is pretty good, but less impressive. When he needs to truly push the levels of credibility with the level of histrionics and insanity Bakker was capable of, he meets the mark, but some of his more subtle moments feel strained. One of the more interesting performances is that of Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell. He doesn’t quite capture the smiling, sweaty, southern demeanor needed to embody the man, but his character is somehow more threatening, and that works for the film. The set design and costume work are doing a ton of the heavy lifting here, as our characters are often saying one thing while what we see on screen is saying something else entirely. This clash between the words and the visuals is perhaps the true brilliance of the film.
For those who don’t know, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were part of the movement of preachers who moved to television to create empires of money and influence. Though we currently associate organizations like 700 Club and Trinity Broadcasting Network with other figures, the Bakkers played a role in building both with little recognition or credit, until they formed their own network, PTL. The film tells a lot of the story, from their focus on love over judgment, to the ways the rising religious right tried to pressure them to become more political. It also points out how much money this ministry made them personally, how willing they were to spend that money on luxury items out of a sense of theological duty, and how willing they were to weaponize every aspect of their lives to pry money from their audience. This is the dichotomy that the film, in many ways, explores well.
The Bakkers were made examples of because they would not politicize everything they did. That doesn’t mean they were theologically progressive; far from it. That also doesn’t mean that what they did wasn’t a crime, or worse, an abuse of the trust of desperate people. It was. The film wants to remind its audience of how awful aspects of their story are, while also humanizing Tammy Faye, and some of that is accomplished in showing how much more compassionate and open she was in comparison to Jim. It is worth noting that this is no exaggeration. During the height of the AIDS panic, Tammy Faye interviewed a gay pastor living with AIDS on TV in what was, at the time, a truly surprising act.
Still, does that mean we should celebrate Tammy Faye? The film is perhaps split on this, and I would argue it is intended to turn the finger back on us, the audience. Tammy Faye is presented as the embodiment of much that is inherently American. This is not presented without critique; she is an embodiment not just of our good things, but also many of the worst and darkest impulses of our culture. However, while that might work as an interesting thesis, the film inevitably ignores some important questions and one horrifying crime.
First, it perpetuates the idea that maybe Tammy Faye couldn’t or didn’t know the extent of the fraud and abuse occurring around her. This is an ideological choice that may work for the narrative, but is certainly not established fact, and there is very little evidence to support it. Even more, the film presents the most Bakker-friendly version of what happened with 21 year old (at the time) Jessica Hahn. While Bakker has acknowledged sexual activity with Hahn, her allegations are that he and a colleague raped her. Her account is horrifying, and ignoring it altogether is an ideological choice which serves the narrative but will leave a bad taste in many mouths.
Second, while I appreciate the decision to focus on the betrayal and evil of Falwell (the man was a monster, a plague on this country, and we are still burdened as a nation by his sins against humanity), that focus allows the film to move forward in a way that is more sympathetic to Tammy Faye and avoids dealing with the more torrid aspects of the story.
Perhaps a movie doesn’t owe us the whole story of anyone’s life; certainly, it will always be a simplified and crib-noted take. When so much of the narrative, or hints thereof, are in the public record, the decision of what to include and what to ignore has real weight. It matters. In this case, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an incredibly compelling narrative of people pursuing the American dream to great avarice, self-delusion, and ruin. What it lacks, perhaps, is the depth of the collateral damage caused by these two ideologically and personally flawed figures. There is some sympathy to be had for Tammy Faye, but not at the expense of some of the truths that are ignored in this film. There is something distasteful about making entertainment out of folks lives, especially ones that are so painful. The film already does that though, creating caricatures for us to laugh at, to mock, and to judge. The judgment is baked in, right there with the sympathy. Knowing that, it feels even more so disrespectful to try and smooth over the rough edges. If there are parts of the story simply too dark for us to look at, why make the film at all?