I, like the next person love a good biopic of actual people who have made an impact on society, whether good or bad. And as a society lately we are trending upward with the number of documentaries and series based on bad people, mostly murderers, cult leaders and serial killers. The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t that at all (sorry to get your hopes up). Instead, the film is based on Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) as they go from their humblest of beginnings to ending up being labeled as con-artists and masters of fraud through the exploitation of their “followers” in the 1970’s. Sure sounds like a cult to me – it hits a few check marks there.
For 1 – People blindly follow what they say, when they say it and how they say it, 2 – they are deeply religious people who have studied the Bible and see it’s message as law above reproach, and 3 – they make a lot of money from their followers in lieu of helping their social status and political agenda. If it looks like a cult, talks like a cult, and sounds like a cult, chances are it probably is. Now, the word cult isn’t mentioned once in the film about these con-artists and their following but based on how you view the world, the interpretation is there.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on the 2000 documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Following Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker as they meet in bible college to becoming a televangelist monopoly, the rise and fall and everything in-between. And like all biopics, there’s a formula to making them – we are introduced to a fresh faced lead character (Tammy Faye), we see them go through some type of adversity, the character skyrockets to the top of their field, living their dream (asking people for money while spreading the word of Jesus on TV where they care about doing good for the sake of being good), the eventual plateau where the tightly wound screws begin to come loose and the eventual downfall.
Biopics are largely predictable due to the formula used to make them but we as an audience make them better than they might be because it’s our favorite musician, politician or we believe in their message. Who doesn’t want to see a film about Queen front man Freddy Mercury or Elton John (Rocketman was the better of the two, fight me), or a courtroom drama like The Trial of the Chicago 7 or The Social Network? Some people lead fascinating lives that need to be told on the big screen for an audience that may not know anything of the people they’re watching.
The glaringly obvious issue facing biopics deals with a singular point of view while others get left out making the story being told completely one sided. The Eyes of Tammy Faye looks through the lens of the titular character. Everything that happened in her life is a presumption that Jim, her husband was the evil one out for monetary and or political gain. Every hardship the couple faced was from Tammy’s way of seeing the situation, she was never the bad guy yet went along willingly with the fraud. Unless we somehow can get firsthand accounts, there’s no way to dispute that Jim was the sole aggressor.
Chastain as Tammy Faye is an engrossing performance, so much so that she acts circles around her co-star Garfield who turns in a solid performance as well. With Oscar season around the corner, Chastain gives a best actress worthy performance. Done up in the outdated but stylish 70’s attire and hairdo (that has more hairspray than necessary) this is Tammy’s story about how she, from a very young age had this calling to speak to other about her faith through the lens of a camera. Is it superficial? Possibly but at the same time, Tammy Faye’s life is sympathetic.
It’s possible that Tammy is a genuinely great person who wants to help people, I haven’t seen the documentary this film is based on, nor had any insight to them before but, you feel for her on a deep level. Not only does she deal with pushback from complete strangers, but from those in the inner circle of televangelism namely Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Jerry is a higher up with political pull and a conservative agenda. The thought of Tammy Faye with her influence speaking on homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic is damaging to faith and politics. Tammy represents upsetting the establishment, the liberal agenda yet the juxtaposition of those with power in this arena that have closeted feelings of exploring sexuality is equally damaging – Jim and his number 2.
Abe Sylvia’s screenplay moves through the years at a rather fast pace – seeing the rise of Jim and Tammy happens rather quickly and to the point. At 126 minutes, the tone stays consistent and anti-climactic throughout especially when the big reveals make themselves known. And since the formula is embedded in this film, you know they’re coming but they don’t leave a lasting impression the way they were intended to.
Tammy Faye is not all superficial and materialistic, the films moral compass is Tammy Faye’s mother Rachel LaValley (Cherry Jones). Despite her best efforts, money talks and so does a giant fur coat gifted by Tammy.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye has a promising premise behind its real-life counterparts but a flat tone and a simplistic manner in which the events are told leave much to be desired. Chastain puts every emotion into this absorbing performance to a film that can’t keep up with her in the slightest. In many ways the film is about addiction (Tammy Faye’s love of Diet Coke), Jim’s addiction to making money or his closet homosexuality, and Tammy’s addiction to helping people for the right or wrong reason. It’s a fair retelling of the life of Tammy Faye but it’s told one time too many. For a biopic, it’s nothing special but for Chastain’s performance as the titular person in which it’s based, see it, you’ll thank yourself.
Written By: Abe Sylvia
Directed By: Michael Showalter
Music By: Theodore Shapiro
Cinematography: Michael Gioulakis
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 6 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
My Score: 2.5 out of 5
Based On: The Eyes of Tammy Faye by Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato