The Eyes of Tammy Faye Review: Chastain delivers a can’t miss performance
The Big Sick director Michael Showalter’s latest film, based on Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, has some of the year’s best performances that carry the film through some of the story’s weaknesses.
The film depicts the rise and fall of iconic, controversial televangelists Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) as they create one of the most prolific Christian television entities of all-time and become the centerpiece of longstanding corruption and manipulation within the Christian institute. Now, being born in 1995, I entirely missed this momentous event in American history and was fascinated by how there was this era of Christian television that legitimately dominated. Every now and again I scroll past The 700 Club and think nothing of it, so it was crazy to see it actually have this major historical impact on television and be such a central role in Tammy Faye and Jim’s rise to becoming Christian televangelist icons.
Those that might know Tammy and Jim’s story will probably get what they expect out of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, but as a newcomer, there’s a lot of intriguing elements to seeing their story unfold. Their humble beginnings as young Christian lovers spreading the word of God through puppets and lively sermons give them a sense of innocence that slowly becomes commercialized as they become deeper ingrained in the fast-paced, politically influenced world of Christian television. The excellent set design and style create this atmospheric telethon setting and there’s this genuinely compelling dialect that breaks the tv screen barrier by speaking directly to their viewers. It’s even crazier how their “brand” really grew to unimaginable extents and how Jim especially became an influential figure in politics. However, the film never fully reaches the full potential of exploring its world because its narrative is so personally focused.
There’s this line said in the opening from a newscaster basically saying that the corruption within Tammy Faye and Jim’s television station, PTL, and other Christian television stations would leave a black mark on pastors and preachers like Watergate did with politicians. It’s a great line that doesn’t ever feel evoked in this film because it doesn’t touch on the impact of Tammy Faye and Jim or this corruption. Instead of being intensely focused on telling the story though the eyes of Tammy Faye, it would’ve been great to see this story expanded in its perspectives to maybe get a glimpse into the mounting resistance they face from news organizations or fans dealing with the news of religious icons falling from grace. This is the kind of event that changed the entire perspective on Christianity as an institution and you never get that effect because the film doesn’t explore these other perspectives leaving The Eyes of Tammy Faye feeling a little empty at times.
Rather the film tries to live up to its name through its storytelling and mostly manages to create a captivating experience because of Chastain and Garfield’s amazing performances. Garfield is absolutely flawless in how he depicts Jim’s uncanny ability to manipulate those around him in the way he speaks. From the first second he enters the frame and speaks his first lines, Garfield absolutely commands the screen with the fiery and disciplined way of delivering these calculated and underlying manipulative speeches. Even the way he manipulates Tammy Faye and attempts to hide his own misdoings by pinning the blame on her is endlessly fascinating to watch because Garfield’s performance is so good. He’s truly a devil in disguise and Garfield excellently mixes cunning charm and deceit to create one of his best performances.
However, even for Garfield delivering a top-tier performance, Chastain transcends the film completely on her own with the level of immersion and commitment she brings in bringing Tammy Faye to life. Whether she’s singing in the studio, talking on stage to the audience, or just simply having a conversation with someone in her home, Chastain exudes the booming sense of joy, hope, and love that Tammy Faye is known for and genuinely makes her such a complex character that you instantly emotionally connect to. Her character is built immensely well with how religion play a pivotal role in her becoming involved with Jim and embodying her with this mission in life to help people. Chastain always makes Tammy Faye feel like she’s always trying to be herself and that genuine love for people is something that makes her performance incredibly touching.
There’s this great scene of Tammy Faye talking to an AIDs patient that’s legitimately tear-inducing because of how Chastain really evokes that innocent love for people that unfortunately made Tammy Faye an easy target for Jim’s manipulation and the ire of corrupt Christian personas that hate how she goes against their “values.” Even as the stylistic and bombastic elements of Tammy Faye run dry towards the film’s final act, Chastain continues to keep you on her hook as she elevates the emotion and turmoil Tammy Faye faces in finding her own strength among the manipulation and corruption that seeks to keep her down and maintaining an innocent view of love and helping those around her. Tammy Faye’s story is a true act of survival and Chastain creates this incredible swirl of emotions that have your heart from start to finish.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye could’ve used some more meat on its narrative structure to simply give a wider view on its story’s momentous impact, but it still manages to be a worthwhile experience because Garfield and Chastain are absolutely captivating in their performances. Chastain’s performance makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye a can’t miss experience on its own and if she somehow doesn’t win that overdue Oscar for her astounding work here…we riot.