Michael Showalter’s effort pulls too many punches to leave a lasting impression
As Brit, I remember well the first time on these shores that I witnessed the tawdry spectacle of Televangelism. An unusual sight, a far cry from my own experience of a church raising money from collection plates and bake sales to do simple things like repair the church roof. Here there was something more slick at play. A grander operation and approach to drive viewers to open their wallets, and funnel money into an entity not just to support it, not just to further spread the word of God, and because in some way this support will reflect their faith and reward them in time. Oh and also to get these ‘preachers’ their mansions, private planes, and cushy lifestyles. While their approach continues in America today, the zenith of their operations was in the 80s and 90s, largely thanks to Jim Bakker, whose rise (and fall) are seen here though the eyes of his wife, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain).
As a child of divorce, Tammy was estranged from her mother and community but we see as she is drawn to what made her such a pariah, religion. As a teen, she heads to colleges to become a preacher, where she crosses paths with her husband to be, Jim (Andrew Garfield). Their union prompting their expulsion from the gospel academy, and a decision to take their love for Christ on the road, using puppets to connect with younger audiences. Their work catches the eye of preacher Pat Robertson, who invites them to join his TV station (the eventual Christian Broadcast Network), where their success, and Tammy’s interpretation of the Bible, puts them at odds with more right-leaning religious figures, and prompts them to start their own PTL (Praise The Lord) satellite network. Their folksy charm draws millions of viewers (and dollars) into their flock, and Jim’s growing Empire. Tammy champions her own interpretation of Christianity, as her husband’s obsession grows, which sets them on a course for a reckoning.
It’s the latest directorial effort from Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), who penned the script together with Abe Sylvia (Nurse Jackie). A pretty by the numbers biopic, rolling out a tale from past to present, working in montages to skip ahead or deliver newsworthy items. We see how the Bakkers bonded over their interpretation of the Bible and their intention to connect with people. From simple beginnings with hand puppets, to engaging with adults with the evening 700 Club program, to eventually the planning and construction of Heritage USA, a sprawling Christian theme park in North Carolina. The pair kickstarted and truly shaped the phenomenon of televangelism. Oh and also left it utterly tainted by their corruption.
The film belongs to Jessica Chastain. A chameleonic performance, she gives herself over to this reincarnation of Tammy Faye. Channeling her quirks, moments of angst, despair, loneliness, as well as the warmth and kindness as she talks to people in real life or on air. An impressive figure ploughing into the midst of these powerful, white men such as Jerry Falwell (the always superb Vincent D’onofrio), and being utterly undaunted by them. It’s a gaudy yet earnest performance that adds far more nuance to the film that the script does. Garfield just feels insubstantial by comparison. The weight that builds over the life of Jim Bakker sitting uneasily on the young shoulders of this actor. Where Garfield is more bumbling, Chastain just bubbles over with pathos. This is never more evident than a scene where they recreate an interview from 1985 with Steve Pieters: an AIDs patient, a pariah in society, yet a man Tammy brought onto her show and showered with kindness over a satellite linkup.
While the most moving part of the film, it also underscores a lot of what is missing. The Bakker’s social impact (both positive and negative) is hinted at, but rarely explored. There are brief moments that highlight the connection of Evangelicals to the political right, notably the Presidential races. But Tammy’s efforts to embrace someone with AIDs is in isolation, and never juxtaposed against the Reagan Administration’s dereliction of duty in dealing with the AIDs outbreak. There is also the sense that Tammy is painted in too good a light. Aside from a few scenes where she uses her charm to get some investors on board, she is clearly untangled from the day to day business affairs that led Jim to jail. But there remains a culpability. She enjoys the opulent life their schemes provided for. She ignores the sermons from her mother (a fantastic turn from Cherry Jones) about the wrongs of preaching for profit. She continually turns a blind eye to Jim’s behavior and accepts his explanations for a growing list of scandalous headlines without challenge. The real dirt and fallout from their behavior is only given cursory attention, even the impact on their children or a substance abuse issue is largely skirted around. Showalter seems unwilling to condemn them or their cause. Another soul won over by the charms of Tammy Faye.
As a showcase for the talents of Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a resounding success. In every other way, the film feels trite, treading familiar biopic ground. More damning is how the film feels like it pulls every punch. There should be a righteous anger bubbling under here. Fueling a scathing (or at least satirical) takedown of the people involved in these schemes, and a highlighting of the human cost beyond their own mansions and marinas. Instead there is sympathy and a slap on the wrist, in what amounts to a misfire and more so a missed opportunity.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens in theaters on Sept 17th