Beginning in the late 1950s, The Eyes of Tammy Faye follows the rise and fall of Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim. Though their lives began in humble beginnings, they gradually rose through the ranks to create the largest religious broadcasting network in the world. Marked by their smiling faces and charming demeanour, the couple’s ministry sprawled around the globe and touched the lives of many. However, as their financial improprieties caught up with them, their ministry crashed with a mighty force, leaving their family scarred by scandal for years to come.
Tightly written and anchored by a stellar cast, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a soulful and scathing look at the destructive allure of power in the world of faith. Directed by Michael Showalter, the film emphasizes the disconnect between authentic religious zeal and the systems that exist to monopolize upon it. With each potential stepping stone in their career, Showalter always manages to emphasize the potential for ‘more’. More money. More power. More… everything. Whether it’s the bright lights of television or massive mansions to which they’re invited, Showalter dwarfs Jim and Tammy by the lucrative aspects of success that surround and call them. Despite their initial passion, the lure of success’ proverbial apple becomes too great and they are ensnared by their decisions.
As Jim Bakker, Garfield manages to balance a heart of corruption and one of passion. Instead of fully demonizing him, Garfield’s initial desire and double-speak reveal the charisma of a man that fooled millions. In many ways, he is the villain of the piece, yet there is a sympathetic aspect to this performance that somehow makes him likeable. However, the true star of the film is Chastain herself. Here, Chastain is utterly transformative in the role of Tammy Faye, portraying her as never complicit in Jim’s crimes yet never fully innocent either. With humility and love, Chastain never demonizes her character, despite giving her an eye that is ever-seeking approval, be it from her family or her audience. Together, the couple have wonderful chemistry as a pairing who begin with genuine care for their spiritual mission yet gradually compromise themselves into evil.
At no point in the film is faith judged in and of itself. Instead, the film highlights the dangers and toxicity of those who control it. Whether it’s the self-approval sought by Jim Bakker or the toxic nature of power that we see in someone like the ever-menacing Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio), the genuine face of its leadership is what’s on trial. These are broken people who refuse to accept their brokenness. To Falwell and the other white men in control, the Evangelical system is one of order and power. [Even Pat Robertson is viewed as a man who is willing to slit your throat if it helps his career.] All are willing to twist scripture to fit their own agendas, arguably except Tammy Faye.
As such, the most fascinating aspect of this film is that it’s scathing conversation about faith feel feels so honest. Led by Falwell, the organized Christian church is portrayed as an exclusive club where those that do not fit into the box are unwelcome unless they conform. Tammy Faye is one who did not fit into those boxes, and she is reminded of this constantly. From the very beginning of the film, Tammy Faye is seen as kept on the outside looking in. As a child, she is shown as staring from outside the window due to the shame thrown upon her mother. As an adult, she is left out in the cold based on the shame that her husband threw upon her (and himself).
Held up against the toxic masculinity of the Evangelical leadership, Tammy Faye is seen as a (mostly) genuine person within the film, despite her flaws. For her, the purpose of the ministry is to show the love of Jesus to as many people as possible. She is consistently and constantly opening the doors to the disenfranchised, especially the LGBTQ+ community. She views people as deserving of God‘s love as opposed to focusing on an overall agenda. However, this same openness is what makes her a threat to that system. Because of her willingness to embrace those that the organized church was unwilling to reach, Tammy Faye is kept at a distance (or worse, ostracized).
Similarly (or perhaps because of this), Tammy Faye is also a woman who wants to experience love. She views the camera as a person, which also ties into the theme of her eye. Tammy Faye understands that she has a unique connection with her audience (parishioners?) because they give her a chance to speak and feel loved themselves. To her, this is a genuine relationship that it worth taking seriously. On the other hand, Jim abuses the power of the camera’s eye. Although he claims to have vision, his soul is weak and he views his ‘partners’ as means to support his fame and lifestyle. Their great value lies in their wallets and he gradually begins to lose sight of what he has been called to do. (One can almost hear the serpent whispering in the background, ‘Did God really say that you should build a Christian waterpark?’)
Backed by an Oscar-worthy performance by Chastain (yes, I’m calling the shot), The Eyes of Tammy Faye is poignant, potent and one of the best films of the year. Dissecting the poisonous nature of power and its relationship to fame and faith, the film holds its leads accountable yet also offers them grace when needed. This is a story that focuses on the consequences of allowing one’s eyes to wander from the mission to the money and the destructiveness that one’s fall from grace can have on others. At the same time however, it also recognizes the humanity of its subjects and, potentially, offering them a road to redemption as well.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently in theatres.