It’s an odd thing to say at the beginning of any piece of writing, but I’ve always been fascinated by televangelism. I’ve never understood the highly lucrative movement of utilizing religion to serve the founder’s greed, yet I’ve seen many documentaries and read innumerable books on the subject. It’s the main reason why I was looking forward to seeing Michael Showalter’s latest film at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, based on the documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Unfortunately, the hectic festival schedule prevented me from seeing the documentary beforehand. Still, the movie tells how Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), created their televangelism empire and swindled many viewers for money. Some donations from Praise the Lord Studios were used as hush money to keep a rape victim quiet or used to support the Bakker’s lavish expenses, plastic surgeries, and mink coats. And when The Eyes of Tammy Faye recreates many of PTL’s shows, with Chastain and Garfield magnifying the screen, this is where the film is at its strongest, but a lack of a precise end goal and a formulaic structure will ultimately prevent the movie from being as memorable as it should be.
In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jessica Chastain continues to prove why she’s one of the very best actresses working today. In her “Betty Boop voice” (as described by Garfield’s Jim), she gives one of the most compelling performances of the year as someone who believes she is doing good by spreading the Lord’s work but is entirely impervious by what Jim’s Empire is doing. She wants to sing and spread positivity in her messages. In contrast, Jim wants religion to be as radicalized and close-minded as his boss and mentor, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), believes it should be. Falwell, a staunch conservative, opposes any interpretation of Bible verses as slightly progressive and believes the Church’s (or Ministry’s) role should fight any progressive/democrat regarding feminism and homosexuality. One of the best sequences of the entire film is when Tammy interviews an AIDS patient, in the hopes to show her audience that religion isn’t political and that we must learn to accept everyone as human beings, regardless of who they love, which party they support, or the mistakes they did in the past. But, of course, Falwell thinks this message is “problematic,” which will cause a significant rift between Tammy and her husband.
With minimal screentime as Jerry Falwell, D’Onofrio makes an equal impression as Chastain does the entire film. As soon as you see him arriving at Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds)’s party, the smugness that’s on his face is unbelievable, and every audience member should hate him right then and there, even before he speaks of the fight against “the liberal agenda.” D’Onofrio is highly skilled, and it’s great to see him in a role that exploits his strengths as an actor, and he’s as much of an essential part of the film as its two leads are. Regardless if D’Onofrio and Garfield will appear in the MCU very soon, they’re both terrific in this film. Garfield, in particular, has had one hell of a year with Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, and now this (and maybe more in December…but…let’s not jump the gun just yet, even if there’s a 99.99% chance he will show up). Both characters (Link and Jim Bakker) are oddly similar in the way they approach the camera; it’s what gives them power. Look at the way Garfield looks at the camera in both films; they’re in total control of their audience and are an expert manipulator at creating a cult-like relationship with them. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, he constantly asks them for money as he believes Jim and Tammy are the victims of “vicious attacks” by the mainstream media (this remind you of someone?), who are reporting facts on PTL’s dubious financial operations and allegations of accounting fraud, which puts the couple in a rather precarious position.
When the film explores these themes and puts Chastain and Garfield at the forefront of a lens, The Eyes of Tammy Faye more than succeeds in delivering an entertaining look at the shady operations of televangelism. But when it tries to develop its characters, the film falters in superficial character beats and predictable storylines. For example, as Jim becomes distant of Tammy’s needs, she finds comfort in recording artist Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach) and begins to have an affair with him. If you’ve seen any biopic with that storyline, where a character will start getting addicted to drugs and become more volatile through their marital relationship, you’ve seen The Eyes of Tammy Faye. And as much as the film’s aesthetic (and gorgeous cinematography from Mike Gioulakis, who continues to be a driving force in film photography) and performances keep us engaged, the movie’s script is filled with so many half-baked character beats and a paint-by-numbers biopic structure. As a result, it becomes pretty hard to stay invested as the film becomes riddled with dramatic clichés and sequences that only serve to cover as much as possible on Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker’s life, instead of delivering a compelling portrait of two of the most fascinating individuals that put the word “televangelism” on the mainstream.
Because without Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker’s exploitation of the televisual lens, televangelism wouldn’t have likely skyrocketed and became such a captivating subject as it is today, with millions of devout fans tuning into their favorite televangelical channels to receive a warped vision of the Bible based on their political ideologies. But the film barely explores the impact of televangelism, not only on mainstream viewers who are looking for channels that essentially confirm their way of thinking but also on religion as a whole. For example, if you’ve ever been to a catholic mass, no Priest will ever tell you to pledge money for their church. You do it if you want to, but the peer pressure Tammy and Jim brought to their viewers by utilizing media articles, Tammy’s painful spiral into darkness, and other elements of their lives to swindle viewers of money so they can pay for their expensive lifestyle created one of the most engaging and bewildering stories of past forty years.
It’s just a shame that the film delves into superficiality instead of crafting two characters in which the audience can invest themselves. That being said, both Chastain and Garfield have loads of fun playing Tammy Faye and Jim and share terrific chemistry. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chastain gets nominated for an Academy Award due to her performance, and she could potentially be one of the frontrunners to win the Award. However, the competition is fierce with Kristen Stewart in Spencer, who may take top honors this year. Regardless of who you’re rooting for, the competition will be exciting come to Awards Season, and if you want to see a pure actor’s picture, then look no further than The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Though if you’re looking for something more substantial, with better-developed characters and performances, then the latest adaptation of Maria Chapdelaine may do the trick for you.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now playing in theatres everywhere.