From: Silver Screen

REVIEW: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ is an enjoyable but incomplete look at the world of the Bakkers

REVIEW: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ is an enjoyable but incomplete look at the world of the Bakkers
Andrew Garfield as "Jim Bakker" and Jessica Chastain as "Tammy Faye Bakker" in the film "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"

Editor’s Note: This review contains mention of sexual assault.

Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” charts the rise and fall of perhaps the most iconic couple of the 1980s televangelist movement, Jim (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) Bakker. 

But by aiming for entertainment value above all else, Showalter’s film fails to live up to its full potential.

The movie begins as Tammy Faye LaValley is born into a family of meager means in small-town Minnesota. From an early age, she feels that her mission in life is to spread God’s love to all the people of the world. In college, she meets Jim Bakker, and the two soon get married and travel around the country as evangelists. Their efforts quickly grow in popularity as they establish a multimillion dollar faith-based organization called the Praise The Lord (PTL) Satellite Network through which they reach over 20 million weekly audience members worldwide. As those familiar with the story of Jim and Tammy Faye know, their prosperity would not last forever. The second half of the film details the downfall of PTL in the midst of sexual and financial scandal as well as the mounting tensions between the Bakkers in their personal lives.

The most noteworthy successes of this movie are the lead performances. Chastain and Garfield both demonstrate their acting acumen as they tackle two roles that don’t feel comparable to anything in either’s previous films. The pair excels at capturing the cloying attitudes of the couple they portray, always wearing the Bakkers’ signature pasted-on smiles. Chastain in particular does an excellent job at bringing humanity to a woman who has long been seen as more of an object for tabloid exploitation than an individual with complex emotions. 

The makeup, costuming and set design that went into the film are equally impressive. All these components are utilized to full effect in capturing the glitz and glamour of the Bakkers’ lavish lives. Historical accuracy from an aesthetic standpoint is on full display, most notably in the heavy use of prosthetics that are employed to visually transform Chastain and Garfield into their respective characters. 

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While the surface-level elements of the film feel carefully constructed, the thematic aspects come off as a second priority. Many biopics such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It” fall prey to the trap of attempting to cover too much material in too little time. As a result, they often feel like rushed, formulaic money-grabs rather than thoughtful portrayals of the people and events depicted. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is no exception.

One glaring example comes during the most heated argument between the Bakkers. Jim reveals that he has cheated on his wife in an act of retribution for Tammy Faye’s own extramarital affair. He then tells Tammy Faye that, even though he paid hush money to the woman that he slept with, she went public with the story. While all of these details are true, the film casually glosses over the fact that this woman, Jessica Hahn, accused Jim Bakker of sexually assaulting her. By omitting this piece of information, all of the resulting trauma of Jim’s misdoings is placed within the Bakker family rather than examining its effects on Jessica Hahn for even the briefest moment. Why would the filmmakers leave out such a vital piece of information? Because doing so would be inconvenient for moving the film’s narrative along.

While it may miss the mark on some crucial moments in the Bakker saga, the film does bring up interesting themes regarding the commodification of religion. The downfall of PTL seems to make a fairly strong argument that business and faith are anything but a match made in heaven. As Jim becomes increasingly concerned about the growth of his legacy, he neglects Tammy Faye, furthering the rift between them physically and emotionally. In pursuit of spreading their faith as far as possible, the Bakkers’ goal is inadvertently put on the back burner. In this way, Showalter uses the story of PTL to invite audience members into a thought-provoking discussion about whether or not commerce and piety can coexist.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye'' suffers, like many biopics before it, from its attempt to tell a complex story within its limited runtime. At just over two hours long, important details within a 40-plus year timeline are guaranteed to be cast aside. 

Nonetheless, the film’s star power is tremendous and its themes of vice versus virtue remain relevant today. Audience members seeking a nuanced, historically accurate retelling of the Bakkers’ lives won’t be wholly satisfied with Showalter’s film, but those who value amusement above all else at the theater will certainly be pleased.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” will be released in theaters on Sept. 17, 2021. 

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