VOD film review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
James R | On 27, Mar 2022
Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio
Life in all its fullness. That’s the promise made by Christianity, and it’s a concept that’s passionately preached by Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) as we begin The Eyes of Tammy Faye – and it certainly catches her attention. But Jim’s message is one of abundance in a very earthly sense and, before you can say red flag, he and Tammy (Jessica Chastain) are not only spreading the gospel with camera-ready grins but are also mired in scandal and debt.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye shows us the rise and fall of the real life televangelist couple through the lens of Tammy’s perspective, and that generous spirit gives this biopic a disarming charm – but it also leaves you wishing for a sterner gaze.
Tammy and Jim were a big deal in the 70s and 80s, becoming TV stars to the extent that they could afford to launch their own broadcast network. Director Michael Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia adapt the 2000 documentary of the same name about the pair, following their climbing success and non-stop ambition, which took in everything from late night talk shows to family-friendly puppets. But the bigger they get, the more opulent their lifestyle becomes, and social ventures such as housing for people in need and even a biblical theme park are closer to pyramid schemes and scams than anything righteous.
Showater and Sylvia have a playful awareness of the hypocrisy on display, and Andrew Garfield leans into Jim’s cheerful persona with earnest charisma that gradually crumbles the more we see him off-camera. Jessica Chastain, meanwhile, is often unrecognisable as Tammy Faye, delivering a remarkable performance that switches seamlessly between sincerity and showiness.
Where Chastain puts her all into a fascinatingly complex figure, however, the film presents us with a disappointingly two-dimensional sidekick. We watch as she deliberately disrupts the male-dominated environment around her and interviews men who have lost loved ones to AIDS, despite the condemnation of their more conservative, bigoted backers (watch out for a fantastic Vincent D’Onofrio).
Yet as much as we’re meant to admire her liberal, headstrong personality, we’re also meant to believe that she had no knowledge or complicity in her and Jim’s debt-fuelled deceit. It’s a decision that treats her kindly but also robs of her agency in her own story, turning what could have been a spiky, interesting dissection of corruption and compromise into an oddly bland biopic that leaves its protagonist as an onlooker sitting on the sidelines.