Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker want you to know that God loves you—yes, he does. Their message is simple and humble, but they are anything but. They want to be on TV: she as a singer, he as a preacher. They want to reach millions. And they want to be wealthy.
None of those desires are mutually exclusive, and I don’t think the Bakkers favored one over the other. At least not after watching The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the latest movie documenting the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Director Michael Showalter does a good job of showing that even though the Bakkers bilked millions from their followers, they were genuine in their beliefs. It’s a danger in our society that we refuse to see the multiplicity of people. You can be a believer that’s trying to help people and spread the good word. Or you can have an underlying agenda that discounts any good work.
One of the successes of Tammy Faye is that Showalter allows Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and Jim (Andrew Garfield) to be genuine in their conflicts. And one of the failures of Tammy Faye is that all the secondary characters aren’t. Even Jim gets the cold shoulder eventually. As the title suggests, the movie is firmly on Tammy’s side.
Showalter opens in Minnesota with Tammy as a young girl (Chandler Head) fascinated by a revival ceremony. Like a moth to a flame, Tammy is attracted to God’s love. She must have it. And when she receives it, she must share it with everyone else. She enrolls in bible school, meets Jim, a charismatic preacher if there ever was one, and the two marry and hit the road to bring the love of God to everyone. A moment of sheer coincidence—or fate—brings them to Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. They rise fast, first as hosts of a popular children’s show, then as the progenitors of a Christian-themed variety talk show, The 700 Club.
All of this in about an hour of screen time when it could be done in 30 minutes, maybe less. The strength of Tammy Faye lies in Garfield and Chastain’s performances—particularly Chastain as she disappears behind a mountain of make-up and prosthetics until she is unrecognizable in the third act. It’s fascinating, or would be if the movie’s pacing weren’t so sluggishly slow.
Written by Abe Sylvia, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on the 2000 documentary of the same name. That movie is only 78 minutes as opposed to this Tammy Faye’s 126-minute runtime. You don’t need to see the first to know this version feels bloated. You might not even need the first, considering the exciting moments of filmmaking found in Showalter’s Tammy Faye lean heavily on documentary aesthetics. For most of the movie, Showalter and Sylvia keep us sequestered with Tammy Faye and Jim. We know things are happening just outside our purview; we just don’t know what or how. That information comes almost exclusively via a battery of archival footage, news reporters talking over one another, providing context and information.
It feels like a cheat. So does ending a movie by showing the recreation and the actual event side-by-side. An indulgent pat on the back that tries to convince the audience everything they’ve seen should be taken as fact and not dramatic license. I guess we’ve come back to the beginning with the conundrum of two people wanting to spread a simple and humble truth in the least simple and humble way possible.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
Directed by Michael Showalter
Written by Abe Sylvia
Based on the documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
Produced by Kelly Carmichael, Jessica Chastain, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Chandler Head
Searchlight Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 126 minutes, Opens Sept. 17, 2021.