It’s worth considering The Eyes of Tammy Faye through the lens of what it easily could have been before looking at what it is. Given what we know about Tammy Faye Messner as a public figure–that makeup, that voice, the scandal–the biopic of her life could’ve been a maudlin mess. It could’ve been a parody, or taken itself too seriously. The fact that the film itself is none of these things is a minor miracle, a balance of camp and empathy guided by Michael Showalter, a director and performer who’s proven he understands how to execute both.
The resultant The Eyes of Tammy Faye, led by an impressive performance from Jessica Chastain, is primarily interested in redeeming its subject, while also addressing that yes, she is inherently kind of ridiculous. There’s a lot of theology and politics beyond that central concern worth digging into, which the film glosses over. It’s possible a filmmaker or screenwriter with more direct experience of evangelical Christianity might be willing to go to those places. For the moment, however, it’s worth noting that in spite of its flaws, the movie comes off pretty well.
We first meet Tammy Faye as a child (Chandler Head) in Minnesota, where her divorcee church organist mother (Cherry Jones) prevents her daughter from attending church, afraid the little girl’s “shameful” origins might cause a scene. Tammy Faye sneaks in nevertheless, and immediately starts speaking in tongues, to the delight of the congregation. The question of whether this is a true spiritual gift or a calibrated performance by someone seeking attention and acceptance will follow Tammy Faye for the rest of her life.
As a bible college student, Tammy Faye (Chastain) meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), and the two crazy kids get married and drop out to pursue their dreams of ministry full-time; Tammy preaches love and acceptance, Jim a version of the prosperity gospel that plays along with Tammy’s songs and cute puppets. We see the rise of their PTL (Praise the Lord) ministries, and its precipitous fall, addressing (indirectly) Jim’s scandalous behavior and Tammy’s addiction. We also see how they interact with other major players in evangelicalism at the time, namely Jerry Falwell (a brilliantly cast Vincent D’Onofrio), who clearly has designs on their empire.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye leans into its subject’s unavoidable campy nature, which Showalter captures with dazzling gaudiness and hyperactive energy. The production design deserves a lot of credit, from the cheesiness of the PTL sets to the opulence of the Bakkers’ home. Anchoring the whole thing are Garfield and Chastain, who seem to be having a great time in their roles. Chastain in particular does a pitch-perfect version of Tammy Faye that doesn’t make her pathetic or teetering into caricature. Her Tammy Faye is a woman with worthwhile ideas and gifts, but who was kept from freely sharing them by the people around her.
This may be Tammy Faye’s movie, but the culture surrounding her is every bit as interesting. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t as committed to that portion of the story, except where it bolsters the narrative of Tammy Faye’s redemption. D’Onofrio’s Falwell, for instance, comes off mostly as a hulking bully, rather than someone whose legacy continues to wreak havoc on American religious and public life. It’s likely Falwell’s “moral majority” is worth a separate movie of its own, but it’s disappointing that here it barely registers a mention.
On the whole, however, The Eyes of Tammy Faye manages to avoid the trap of many biopics of its kind, staying engaging and entertaining, while also treating a maligned public figure like an actual human being. It stops short of profound, but what it accomplishes is still admirable. Too many biopics examine people we don’t need to know anything else about. The Eyes of Tammy Faye gives us a more complex examination of someone who actually deserved it.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is in theaters Friday.