Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 6 minutes, Director – Michael Showalter
Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) is a hopeful, young woman looking to tour America and bring as many people to God as possible, alongside her leading husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) the pair start a televangelism empire, not without its controversies.
‘Tammy Faye needs to think about her entire life before she sings’. It’s not explicitly said at any point over the course of The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, but if these words were to be stated it would be just one more thing that could lead the film to almost be called Preach Hard: The Tammy Faye Story. There are a handful of elements within the piece that lead it to feel like a, albeit generally watchable, parody of itself, or rather the type of biopic it’s demonstrating. It comes forward in the by-the-numbers convention that runs throughout. Over the course of the narrative and the central life depicted the line between parody and harsh convention is wavered across creating something close to a level of uncertainty for the viewer as to what the true tone of the film is meant to be.
We follow Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain), a hopeful preacher who goes from touring America, with her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) putting on shows for kids and families, to gradually opening up one of the most successful televangelism empires in not just America but eventually the world. However, while Tammy is very much intent on showing God’s acceptance and welcoming people into the televisual congregation Jim seemingly becomes far more intent on bringing money in through sugar-coated appeals, emotional requests for money (or rather “donations”). The marriage becomes a target for the papers, alongside the channel the pair broadcast on and practically run as a whole. “The secular press hates us because we’re winning millions of souls for Jesus” claims Tammy, baffled by why anyone would believe the obvious rumours being spread, and not want to get to know Jesus and have a similar transformational experience as the one she had in her childhood.
Over time the early-blossomed relationship between the two appears fractured as they’re on really seen together on the television screen, where at least Jim is putting across an increasingly false persona. Yet, even as the film appears to firmly establish its characters, slightly settling down and straying away from the parody feel as the marriage becomes the central focus, it seems that Jim fluctuates for the viewer. While you might get used to one character type he soon changes again and you’re never completely sure what his true intentions or views are. Is he being manipulative, is everything for his own gain, or has he actually had a sudden moment of realisation and regret?
Such thoughts are emphasised when it’s made very clear who the real villains of the piece are meant to be. It comes in the form of Vincent D’onofrio as Rev. Jerry Falwell. It’s not just his clear disgust for liberal thinking, and particularly what he sees as the sin of the LGBT+ community, but the way in which he says it. Harsh, sibilant adjectives demonstrate this in a way that clearly states ‘I’m the bad guy’ as he enters into why ministry should also be used to help the Republican party. There’s a general air of obviousness around him whenever he appears on screen, although not down to D’onofrio’s performance.
However, many of the film’s events are seen through the titular eyes of Tammy Faye. Chastain does a great job with what she’s given. While not always getting strong material she certainly avoids a performance that feels like something of a spoof. She helps to lift the film up and push it along, often being the core reason that you stay somewhat involved in the piece and it remains watchable. Although, as she turns to belt out another gospel track, it does all lead you to want to see her in a big, feel good musical.
By the time we reach the ending, after a rather lengthy final 25-30 minute packing in the details of a turnaround in the narrative that has been little referenced up until now, there’s still a watchable piece of work here but one that certainly feels as if we’ve seen it before. Good performances help to distract from an overall feeling of parody and keep you somewhat interested in what’s happening – particularly Chastain when travelling along the lines of her character’s mission rather than the slightly overdone personal worries – perhaps the most familiar elements of the piece. In the end there’s a very by-the-numbers product within The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. It just about keeps your attention and perhaps, much like in real life, it’s down to the on-screen performances.
Often wavering between parody and strong convention The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is a watchable, if very familiar, biopic, often held up by the efforts of Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield’s central performances.