Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 18, 2022)
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s clearly remember televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In particular, Tammy Faye made a strong impact due to the insane amount of makeup she slathered on her face.
Between her clown-like appearance and overly emotional on-screen behavior, Tammy Faye quickly turned into a punchline. With 2021’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, we get a cinematic view of Bakker that attempts to give us insights about the woman behind all that makeup.
As a child in small-town Minnesota, Tammy Faye LaValley (Chandler Head) feels passionate about Christianity. However, because her mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) went through a divorce, Tammy Faye struggles to gain acceptance in the local church.
Despite these obstacles, Tammy Faye continues to pursue her beliefs, and as an adult (Jessica Chastain), she attends Minnesota’s North Central Bible College. There she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a charismatic young man who preaches a “prosperity gospel” in which he believes God’s chosen will enjoy ample material wealth.
Tammy Faye digs this idea, and the pair starts their own ministry. This leads them to a local TV show, one that snowballs into spots on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) 700 Club and eventually their own TV show/network.
Along the way, Jim and Tammy Faye encounter a mix of trials and tribulations. They also seem more interested in earthly pleasures than the gospel, which leads them to potential problematic ramifications.
As I’ve discussed in the past, most movie biographies follow one of two paths. Either they attempt to cover large swaths of their subjects’ lives – what I view as the “greatest hits” approach – or they concentrate on one specific moment in time.
Like my synopsis implies, Eyes goes for the latter. Rather than dig into parts of Tammy Faye’s life in detail, the movie paints a broad picture, one that covers massive amounts of Bakker’s time on earth.
While some movies can pull off this choice, most tend to seem too general, and that becomes an issue with Eyes. Given that it spans many decades, it tends to gloss over the heart of the matter and feel like little more than a general overview, one that fails to provide a lot of depth.
It doesn’t help that Eyes never seems quite sure how to approach its subject. Much of the film wants to rehabilitate Tammy Faye and paint her as a flawed but good person, while other parts lean toward camp and mockery.
I get that Tammy Faye offers a semi-complicated subject, mainly because it needs to overcome all those years during which society viewed Tammy Faye as a clownish fraud. Tammy Faye suffers from such an entrenched public perspective that it seems like a major task to attempt to humanize her.
Eyes can’t pull this off, mainly because it both bites off more than it can chew and also due to those tonal inconsistencies I mentioned. Much of the movie attempts to make her seem like a genuine human, while others paint her in the same goofball light as Dirk Diggler.
This doesn’t work, and it can feel like the filmmakers struggle with their choices. While they clearly want to rehabilitate Tammy Faye – a perspective brought home in this disc’s behind the scenes featurette – the movie still makes her the subject of laughs at times.
Eyes also looks at the scandals in which Jim and Tammy Faye found themselves enmeshed, though I wouldn’t call this a hard-hitting exposé. Despite the multiple financial misdeeds the pair committed, the movie seems reluctant to paint them as anything more than well-intentioned rubes whose lives got away from them.
Which I reject pretty strongly. Did Tammy Faye really believe the religious faith she promoted? Probably, but she commits awfully strongly to a lifestyle that doesn’t exactly follow Scripture, and the movie lets her off the hook for these choices.
This feels like a bad decision. I get that Eyes wants to give us a more sympathetic view of Tammy Faye, but it leans too hard in the wrong direction and doesn’t do much to hold her accountable for all her misdeeds.
Oh, the movie nods toward tsk-tsking at times, mainly how her mother occasionally reminds her that her opulent lifestyle doesn’t really match Christian teachings. However, these scenes seem perfunctory at best and lack much impact.
This leaves us with an unbalanced narrative that sympathizes too much with its leads. Even if we accept that Tammy Faye was just an ignorant dupe who didn’t understand the financial shenanigans involved – which requires us to swallow her as a complete moron – we must understand that Jim consciously stole from his followers.
The movie just doesn’t care. It never takes Jim to task, and it continues to paint him as well-meaning and likable to the end.
This becomes a bridge too far. Many – most? – televangelists act as the worst kind of vultures, as they prey on the vulnerable, and the filmmakers’ choice to barely rap their knuckles bugs me.
We do find a fine cast here, but they can’t elevate their thinly-written roles. Buried under gobs of makeup and various prosthetics, Chastain fails to make Tammy Faye more than a squeaky voiced cartoon.
Garfield plays Jim as little more than an “aw shucks” naif carried away by his success. As noted, it lets him off the hook for his financial fraud, and it barely touches on his other hypocritical choices as well.
Again, I appreciate that Eyes doesn’t simply become a hatchet job and that it attempts a more three-dimensional portrait of its oft-ridiculed subjects. However, it never finds a beating heart and it feels far too superficial to succeed.