Directed by Michael Showalter
Written by Abe Sylvia
The “Based on a True Story” genre is always a tricky one, or in the case of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, based on the documentary, which may make deciphering the fact from fiction even more problematic. Tammy Faye Bakker is a public figure with which I am unfamiliar, given that I was not around for her hey day, and far too young during her downfall, in order to fully experience with public perception, reception and appreciation and/or vilification of her and her husband Jim Bakker. I’ve also never heard of stories from friends or relatives who would know more about her story. That being said, I came into this film with no preconceived notions, and no expectations on what this movie would be, how it would depict the character of Tammy Faye, and for that reason I had no previously passed judgement. I think this is both a blessing and a curse. If you’re here, reading this review to know how the film was, I don’t have the perspective of someone knowledge about the real life events, but that also gives me fresh perspective on the film, its characters, and the execution of the film from a storytelling perspective. I’ve taken the real life out of it. So if you want to know how accurate the film is to real life, or how good Chastain and Garfield’s impersonations are of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, you’ve come to the wrong review. What I will provide is my unbiased perspective of the film. Just the film.
A child of divorce in International Falls, Minnesota, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) was not allowed to the church where her mother (Cherry Jones) performed on piano. But she was drawn there, and later would devote her life to it, attending bible college in Minnesota where she met and fell in love with Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), an aspiring pastor. On a whim, or perhaps called by God, the young couple hit the road, using their unique combination of bravado, charisma, and passion for Christ to preach the “good book” across the nation, eventually landing in Virginia where they’re given the chance to take their show onto television by noted televangelist Pat Robertson and later Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). The Bakkers quickly reached a huge audience, developing their own Praise the Lord, or PTL, network, and building a Christian empire. But constantly painted in the secular media with rumors of shady management, eventually their empire begins to crack, showing the questionable decision making and opulent lifestyle the Bakkers have come to adapt as sins against their “partners”, who have constantly pledged their dollars to bail out the mismanaged business.
Biopics are often great actor showcases, an opportunity for someone to sink into the persona of a real life person and really go for it. With The Eyes of Tammy Faye, both Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield are able to do this with pretty outlandish and spectacular characters in the Bakkers. But, of course, the film is called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, not Jim, so Chastain stands headlong above the rest of the cast, and the film really does work as a career highpoint for her in terms of performance. Chastain has long been a favorite of mine, she’s great is just about everything she’s ever done, but her performance here, if you can believe it given who Tammy Faye Bakker was, is subtle genius. Tammy Faye was larger than life, and had very specific tics and quirks that made her instantly recognizable, and Chastain really delivers them brilliantly, but she also does so with a surprising humanity which is quietly present just below the surface. She plays Tammy Faye with compassion, the vulnerability of a true human being, as opposed to going so over the top that the character becomes an effort in impersonation and flamboyancy. Chastain has a great chance at being nominated for Oscar this year for this performance. Garfield is likewise strong in his role as Jim, whose persona is not quite as out there as Tammy Faye, and while great, when standing next to Chastain on screen, his performance can occasionally come across as parroting, but together this is a very strong pair of lead performances.
What perhaps surprised me the most about the film was how much humanity and compassion did come across in the depiction of the characters, a testament to both the performers and I think director Michael Showalter, whose storytelling really allows for the vulnerabilities and doubts of these characters to come through, even while embroiled in what appears to be a pretty ridiculous and outlandish story. It would be easy for a film like this to take the I, Tonya route, and make it a farce, because honestly there is a lot that could be made fun of in this story. And there is an element of that to be sure, but would I found charming was that it didn’t stand there judging these characters without also considering their internal motivations. Again, having not lived through this/know anything about this story, Jim’s arc is fairly unforgivable, but Chastain’s depiction of Tammy Faye certainly leaves room for quite a bit of gray area. She’s vivacious, and seems to be truly excited and in love with God and her message. The genuine, enthusiastic nature of her is admirable, even if she might appear ridiculous doing it. And while I could write thousands of words about Evangelical Christians, televangelism, and the hypocrisy and immorality of it all, that is a separate discussion for a separate time.
That being said, I’ve seen some responses to the film say that it lives too much in the middle ground in how it presents the story: neither far enough to the comedy side, nor far enough to the dramatic side. And I have to say I agree with the assessment. It doesn’t become a farce, or a parody, while also never taking itself as entirely serious, a proper Oscar-bait drama. By living somewhere in the middle, however, it manages to tackle the story both with the ridicule and comedy it likely deserves, while also preserving the humanity of its characters. Because as we remember, these were real people, and who are we to outright dismiss their experiences and motivations. We are all deeply flawed people. So from that perspective, that middle ground becomes a strength of the film in my opinion. Some may struggle to get past the misgivings of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and televangelism in general, in order to enjoy the movie, except maybe when Jim finally gets shipped off to prison, but I would encourage you to keep an open mind, and seek the love and compassion that Tammy Faye exuded deep beneath her extravagant makeup and eyelashes. And if nothing else, watch for the incredible lead performances, especially Jessica Chastain, who deserves every plaudit she is likely to receive this awards season.