For those who remember televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” provides a nostalgic look back to the ‘80s toppling of their PTL network through sex scandals and financial fraud. Thanks to dead-on portrayals by Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain, even those unfamiliar with the Bakkers will be riveted by the actors playing the religious duo.
Based on the 2010 documentary by the same name, “Eyes” is a biopic told through Tammy Faye’s perspective. After being ostracized by her Minnesota church community for being the child of divorce, 10 year-old Tammy is driven by her love of people to sneak into church and receive Communion. Overwhelmed by God’s love, she convulses and begins ‘speaking in tongues.’ The congregation accepts Tammy as a modern miracle.
Next stop: Bible College in Minnesota. Teen Tammy (Chastain) attends a lecture and student Jim Bakker (Garfield) provides an unorthodox sermon declaring Christ wants his followers to be wealthy. Chastised by their class professor for contradicting Scripture (‘Blessed be the Poor’), Jim is defended by Tammy, who is subsequently chastised as a ‘harlot’ for wearing make-up. The opposition brings Jim and Tammy together; they marry and are expelled from Bible College for doing so.
Jim and Tammy’s bubbly personalities and desire to spread the Word lead them to become travelling ministers, performing puppet shows and singing songs. By chance, their show is seen by one of Pat Robertson’s people and they are invited to perform on Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. After a few years, Jim gets his own show: ‘The 700 Club’ becomes a success.
A chance meeting with Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) at Robertson’s home causes friction between Falwell and Tammy Faye: Falwell’s opposition to feminism and homosexuality doesn’t jibe with Tammy’s love of fellow man. Jim is encouraged by Tammy to not stand in Falwell or Robertson’s shadow but to create his own network: the PTL (Praise The Lord) network is born and an empire emerges.
Despite millions of followers, leopards don’t change their spots: Jim’s avarice finds him overextended and overwrought. An ensuing marital distance from Tammy invites extramarital excuses. Despite both Jim and Tammy proclaiming they speak to God, God forgets to remind them about the 6th Commandment: Falwell enters and the Bakkers fall.
While “Eyes” could have been campy since Jim and Tammy Faye are best remembered as comedic fodder, director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) and writer Abe Sylvia play it straight. What’s highlighted is Tammy Faye’s love of people, particularly her embrace of the LBGTQ community using TV to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic by interviewing an AIDS-stricken gay minister on PTL in 1985. Not one to fear the ostracism she experienced as a child, Tammy’s altruism (even in the face of powerful people like Jerry Falwell) was unwavering.
If there is a fault with “Eyes,” I missed seeing Garfield reenact Jim’s tearful TV apology after being caught with Jessica Hahn. That said, Garfield and Chastain’s performances are amazing. Nailing the Midwest accent, physically looking like the Bakkers and mimicking their mannerisms, both actors excel. While Chastain will get more awards notice as the film focuses on Tammy, Garfield shouldn’t be overlooked. Though her image may be of a mascara-caked clown, “Eyes” wants audiences to remember Tammy Faye as a true humanitarian and maverick in Jim Bakker’s ministry.