Religions have an incredible ability to enlist followers, and the concept of a higher power can greatly change the attitude of worshippers in how they live their daily lives. More importantly, it can change how they spend their money, which is how many institutions, from small parishes to megachurches, fund their operations. While it is hardly true in every case, money can lead to corruption, with the excessive ability of dollars can be too appealing to turn down personal upgrades and other lavish expenses that don’t relate directly to the purpose of the pledges. When those misusing the money they’ve raised are caught, it’s often very interesting to see how they respond, as is very much true in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) grows up in International Falls, Minnesota, the child of a divorced, distant mother (Cherry Jones) and caring stepfather (Fredric Lehne). When she goes to bible college, she meets the charismatic Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Together, the two find a love for Christianity that leads them first to a career of traveling puppet shows and then to a wildly successful run as televangelists on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Tammy Faye’s fidelity to her husband remains steady even as he is accused of diverting donations to personal causes and abusing the trust given to them by millions of devoted parishioners.
If this film was not based on a true story, it would still certainly have much to say about the way society operates and how money guides so much. The blind faith that so many put in those they see on television is terrifying, and those who have a captive audience are well aware of how much sway they hold over all their actions. Pleading kindly with viewers to consider doubling their pledges seems like it must be genuine and well-meaning, yet the life of excess they live and the lack of respect they have for those who don’t share their ideals reveals a disturbing deception and impurity.
It’s fascinating to see the public personas that both Tammy Faye and Jim put on for the camera and how quickly Jim transforms once the lights have been turned off, while Tammy Faye remains largely the same, perhaps a bit fatigued by the presence needed for TV but still possessing the same love and generosity she emanates for the crowd. At times, Tammy Faye seems almost cartoonish, as if someone couldn’t possibly be so bubbly and blissfully hopeful all the time since it would certainly take a toll on her overall mental health, as does end up being the case once her stable life begins to unravel and she faces an uncertain road ahead.
This story plays out somewhat like a soap opera, with its dated 1980s colors and bouncy titles only adding to the effect. Even if its content is often over the top, its characters remain consistent, revealing their true natures as time goes on and insurmountable obstacles present themselves. Michael Showalter helms a film that is deeply engrossing, headed towards an inevitable conclusion that even audiences unfamiliar with actual events might seem coming, but one that does justice to the eccentric personalities it showcases.
The two performances at this film’s center are extraordinary. Chastain first plays Tammy Faye as a scripture-quoting, giggly young adult, someone whose rambunctiousness will surely get her noticed even if she doesn’t understand what it might do for her. As she gains prominence and visibility, the character transforms and Chastain does so marvelously with her, disappearing under layers of makeup and loneliness. Garfield is equally committed to his portrayal of Jim, whose public persona for the camera is warm and inviting, but whose hubris and inability to see his wife as an equal are his ultimate undoing. There is certainly extravagance in this story, but it suits its characters and the wild rollercoaster of their celebrity.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations section and will be released in theaters by Searchlight Pictures on Friday, September 17th.