Those of us who were around in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s will certainly remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the hosts of the immensely popular television ‘ministry’ The PTL Club. Starting out of a small North Carolina studio, the Bakkers grew their small show into its own international television network. They even launched a 2500-acre theme park and resort. The couple’s lavish lifestyle was enough to rouse suspicion, but it was Jim Bakker’s sex scandals and coverups that eventually brought the powerful hucksters to their knees.
The new film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” comes from director Michael Showalter working from a script by Abe Sylvia. It’s an adaptation of a 2000 documentary of the same name and sees Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain stepping into the roles of the televangelist power couple. The trailers for the film were both fascinating and curious, taking what looked to be a very sympathetic approach to Tammy Faye. While Jim Bakker was clearly a corrupt and contemptible charlatan, Tammy Faye’s hands weren’t exactly clean. So it made sense to wonder if the movie would paint us the full picture or was it up to something else?
It turns out “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” goes all-in, not just to gain our sympathies for Tammy Faye, but also in portraying her as one of Jim Bakker’s countless victims. She’s yet another person hoodwinked by Jim’s lust for wealth and power.
But there’s an unavoidable side effect to the movie’s staunch commitment to redeeming Tammy Faye’s image. The filmmakers are so aggressive in their attempts at shielding her from any culpability that they make her into a dimwit. Garfield’s Jim Bakker is so overtly and transparently a fraud to the point of being a caricature. Yet the film shows Tammy Faye standing by him, soaking up the posh amenities, but oblivious to her husband and ministry partner’s glaring corruption? That’s a leap of faith I could never take.
The movie’s two stars make for a captivating pair and there is certainly plenty of juicy material to cover. But “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” rarely gets out of standard by-the-book biopic mode. And in the rare instances where it does, the scenes more closely resemble an extended Saturday Night Live skit. Chastain goes big and gives a performance that’s captivating, a little wacky at times, but easily the film’s biggest strength. She pours herself into the titular character and as much as the Academy loves transformative work, Chastain should be a lock for an Oscar nomination.
The story starts in 1952, before the trademark thick eyelashes caked in mascara. There we see Tammy Faye as a little girl in International Falls, Minnesota. The movie wastes no time hopping to her bible college days in Minneapolis where she first meets and falls for an ambitious young Jim Bakker. Two scenes later the couple are married and starting a traveling ministry spreading their health and wealth prosperity gospel across the Bible Belt.
While in real-life Tammy Faye did more than her share of mangling scripture to lure in donors in an effort to support their opulent lifestyles, the movie paints her as well-meaning bystander. Instead it’s all Jim’s rabid thirst for money and prominence that led to their downfall. Especially after getting a taste of television on Pat Robertson’s CBN network. Before you know it Jim and Tammy Faye form their own TV channel out of a baby blue Charlotte, North Carolina studio – enter the PTL Network.
The movie doesn’t go into much detail about how the Bakkers managed to get from TV show hosts, to network owners, to building their own theme park and resort in Fort Mill, South Carolina all by 1985. It’s content with making quick stops along the timeline, each stop showing Jim’s ever-growing self-obsession while Tammy SLOWLY starts to realize the obvious. And of course their empire eventually crumbles in a heap of adultery, drug addiction, and fraud.
There are several other elements that either need more attention or just don’t work at all. There’s Tammy Faye’s undercooked relationship with her stern and unsupportive mother (a really good Cherry Jones). There’s Tammy’s clumsily written and out of the blue affair with her here-and-gone record producer (Mark Wystrach). There’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s wacky impersonation of Jerry Fallwell. And then you have the final 20 minutes that loses steam before ending with an especially strange final musical number.
”The Eyes of Tammy Faye” ends up being a bewildering mixed bag. In their efforts to rewrite Tammy Faye Bakker, the filmmakers leave us nothing but the appearance of humanity. They scrub clean most of her sins, and manage to shift the blame for the ones they do show. So we end up with a portrayal that neglects the very thing that would have made it interesting. It’s a shame because this truly is a showcase for Chastain who’s up to the task but isn’t given the material to match. ”The Eyes of Tammy Faye” opens in theaters this weekend.