THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is directed by Michael Showalter. The film stars Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Sam Jaeger, Vincent D'Onofrio, Gabriel Olds, Mark Wystrach, Chandler Head, Fredric Lehne and Jay Huguley. This is a biopic and is not to be confused with the 2000 documentary of the same name.
Coming from a poor broken home, young Tammy Faye is curious about religion from a young age, During her time in a religious college, she’s immediately smitten by the passionate would-be preacher Jim Bakker, and the two leave college, becoming husband and wife, setting out to spread the word of God, eventually tapping into the world of television for their ministry. From the ground up, Jim and Tammy build PTO, which reaches out to millions, letting them grow their empire. But it’s not long before their overly ambitious outreaches and projects land them deeper in debt and a stranger-than-fiction scandal-ridden life.
The story of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker is one that must be seen to be believed. Initially two people from meager backgrounds catapulted into the spotlight of Christian broadcasting, it’s a rags-to-riches story of the most bizarre kind. THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE gives the couple the long overdue biopic they’ve needed for years, and it’s a revelation that’s shocking at times and unbelievably hilarious and ludicrous at others. The casting is top-notch, with the cast members truly becoming the persons they’re meant to portray, and the truths on display are starting. However the otherwise stellar film does tend to suffer in places, with certain plot points and characters being shafted and not getting the development or screen time they deserve, with far too many time periods crammed into a limited running time.
Where THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE deserves the bulk of its praise is the casting. The titular character is portrayed by a virtually unrecognizable Jessica Chastain (MOLLY’S GAME, IT CHAPTER II), who effectively becomes Tammy from start to finish, caked in makeup and an inhuman amount of other decorations. Right from the opening scene it’s clear this will be a very different role than we’re used to from Chastain. But she never steps wrong or makes the film descend into self-parody; something that could easily happen in the hands of a lesser director. Simultaneously detestable and sympathetic, Chastain straddles the tightrope perfectly here, and seeing her conflicts with the other characters in the movie is a highlight. Almost as impressive is Andrew Garfield (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) as Jim, who’s a delight to follow from his younger college years to a gray-haired man facing prison time for defrauding his investors. We even get the always impressive and underrated Vincent D’Onofrio (FULL METAL JACKET, DAREDEVIL) as Jerry Falwell, one of America’s leading preachers who finds himself intrigued but also in conflict with the Bakkers, making for some entertaining scenes. The casting here doesn’t disappoint, and it’ll be criminal if the trio of leads here doesn’t see some Oscar nominations.
Set design and makeup work, especially on Chastain’s Tammy, are equally praiseworthy. From the opening scene in which we see her ridiculous makeup and surgery along with some silly dialogue to seal the deal, we’re hooked. We’re invested in this woman and want to spend the next two hours with her, seeing where she and her husband end up in their well-meaning but foolhardy and misguided quest to spread the word of God. Much like the actors and actresses themselves, the makeup work and set design covering multiple decades worth of timelines is Oscar-worthy.
The story and the narrative are quite strong due to the strength of the source material and the true story being told here. From the beginning to the end, the story here thrives on the quality of the actors and their performances, and it’s no surprise their bringing these characters to life is part of the reason that this film does so well at holding the viewer’s attention. It does make one ponder many questions regarding Christianity and preaching. Just how much money is too much for a preacher to make? What should be the limit of the reach of a ministry? Should a church/ministry/God truly love all people regardless of factors like sexual orientation? Granted, the film has more questions than answers, but that's to be expected.
The film, however, does lag in some areas. The biggest issue here is that the film tries to cram literal decades into a two-hour runtime. This means some characters, plot points, and everything in between often get left by the wayside. It’s absolutely criminal that the movie shafts the Bakker children and doesn’t show how the events here impact them; relegating them to a handful of scenes and a worded epilogue at the film’s end isn’t enough (at the screening I attended, I heard two people very loudly say "Where are there kids?" at different parts of the movie). Due to how much material the film must cover, one must truly wonder if this would’ve worked better as a television miniseries than a feature film. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy what we ended up with, though.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE rises above its negligible flaws, and those who want to witness a stranger-than-fiction true story of televangelists gone too far will love what they see here. It’s an unexpected but excellent tale with some of the best costume design and performances of the year. Recommended!