Faith is murky. It’s a subject film specialises in because it’s a wonderful medium in which to explore faith, especially from the outside looking in. And considering the topic is taboo in general conversation, that’s a rather handy resource. However, filmmakers must tread lightly, for a misstep in this realm can leave their work hollow and insulting. The worst examples of this are works that look to the wrong aspects of faith, and one such misplaced look is through The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Michael Showalter’s feature delves into the world of televangelism, particularly the lives of two of the biggest televangelists ever, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Andrew Garfield & Jessica Chastain). The tale begins as one of love. Jim and Tammy meet in college and fall for each other instantly after it becomes apparent they both have unconventional feelings about faith. Soon after, they marry and settle into a life that provides the grassroots for their future empire. The genesis of which comes down to a puppet called Susie Moppet. You see, with this hand puppet Tammy and Jim put on shows for children, shows about how to find God’s love. And thus, the first domino falls with an ember.
This ember sparks an incomprehensible blaze in the form of the PTL Network, the home of the Bakker’s televangelist programs and the cause of all their great wealth. That wealth ultimately causes the Bakker’s downfall, and it’s precisely where these people and the film turn sour. No matter how you look at the programming on PTL, it was a scam. A scam Jim may have primarily operated, but a scam most certainly capitalised on by Tammy. It takes a grand amount of ignorance to look at the exorbitant lives they buy for themselves and conclude Jim is the only person at fault. And yet that’s exactly what happens, and in doing so, Showalter tosses around a redemption never earned. Yes, Tammy had a unique and inspiring view of Christianity, but for all the times she used it for good, like her famous interview with an AIDS patient, she would perverse it into a negative through life in her giant mansion funded through lies and manipulation.
Eventually, Showalter’s film dissolves into a headscratcher, one tragically host to two of the year’s best performances. Chastain shines under layers upon layers of prosthetics and make-up, and Garfield is firmly her equal as he goes about being a master manipulator destined to fall. Together, they are the only true redeeming quality as they tread the formulaic grounds with unending charisma. And this is enough for the first portion of the film to get by, the part before they’ve done anything wrong. But as we trudge through to the drama, things don’t add up in favour of The Eyes of Tammy Faye ever being necessary to make. Have we run out of people to glorify to the extent that shady televangelists need to be painted across the silver screen? I don’t think so.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an unfortunately misguided affair that celebrates a figure history has granted no valid reason to celebrate, and as such, it fails in the attempt.
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