Based on the real-life story of televangelists Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), the story takes in their humble beginnings as children's entertainers in rural America, all the way through to their 'prosperity gospel' of the '70s and '80s, and their eventual downfall amidst many scandals...
There are moments in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' when you catch yourself not only feeling sorry, but also truly empathising with Tammy Faye's plight, even though she's fabulously wealthy, is draped in furs and expensive jewellery, and seems painfully unaware of how soulless her work is. Jessica Chastain's ability to give humanity to a character who has been the butt of a joke for many years is what sustains 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' through some of its weaker moments, not to mention the somewhat rote manner of storytelling.
Based in part on the documentary of the same name, 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' gives a glossy account of the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of televangelist couple Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, but also tries to examine how Tammy Faye was a woman who was continuously turned away from righteousness by the men in her life. There's a key scene where she interviews an AIDS patient, tearfully discussing the stigma that they face in Ronald Reagan's America, and how a simple message of love and acceptance can change so much - all while in the backstage, her husband and the gloomy presence of conservative evangelicalism are talking about how they can undermine her. It's very broad stuff, not in the least bit subtle, but given how larger-than-life Tammy Faye was, it makes sense to match that overtness in the story.
Chastain leads the show from start to finish, more than equal to the task of showing how audiences became so taken by Tammy Faye's presence, not to mention digging into the darkness that drove her to drug abuse and the declining marriage with Jim Bakker. Andrew Garfield, in this role, is able to get the weasely, slippery Bakker to a tee, straying a little too close to Paul Sunday from 'There Will Be Blood' in parts, but generally serving as a support to Chastain's performance. Likewise, when Vincent D'Onofrio shows up as Jerry Falwell, his baritone voice and his domineering physique represent not only the stern and unfeeling society that surrounds the story, but also the hypocrisy of it all.
The movie ends with her in full drag and singing an operatic rendition of 'Amazing Grace' in her head, but in reality, it's a deathly quiet stage with a slightly baffled audience looking on. Though she might believe her own empowerment entirely, we're never quite sure what to make of it. Was she this trailblazing queer icon, or was she simply an accomplice to grifters and maybe even one herself? The movie seems to vacillate between the two, even when it brings in Cherry Jones as the down-home mother to chastise her daughter for seeing God and ministry as an opportunity to make money and be famous. The fact is that she was all these things; someone who believed in the human dignity of people that so-called Christians would rather see dead, and a false prophetess of greed and corruption.
When you come right down to it, 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' is a familiar rise-and-fall story, with Jessica Chastain able to capture the highs and the humbling lows of a life lived out loud. Though it tries to straddle many opinions on its subject and abdicates judgment, it's nevertheless an enjoyable and entertaining biopic.