The Eyes of Tammy Faye – movie review

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a cheesy melodrama that plots the rise and fall of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker.

Jim (Andrew Garfield), with the help of loyal supporter Tammy (Jessica Chastain), created a 24/7 TV Ministry that was beamed to 20 million people in 56 countries. Jim also siphoned huge monetary pledges from his PTL (Praise the Lord) Ministry to live a lifestyle of excess.

Tammy was the eldest of eight siblings, brought up by her God-fearing, divorced, humourless mother (Cherry Jones) and her stepfather (Fredric Lehne) in International Falls in Minnesota. She met Jim at the North Central Bible College in Minneapolis in 1960. Their connection was instant. She was gregarious and wide-eyed. He was a dorky wannabe preacher who needed someone to believe in him … and that someone was Tammy. They married and became travelling prophets, spreading the word of God. He would preach and she would sing. Importantly, she saw a niche and began to connect with children through puppetry.

A chance encounter would see them invited onto a Christian television network, where the star of the show was televangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). Jim wanted what Pat had – adulation and riches. With Tammy’s encouragement, he went after it. The biggest name in the Christian Church at the time was Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). He founded a megachurch in Virginia. He had strong opinions on who should be embraced by the church and who should not, but his views weren’t shared by Tammy Faye. She believed God loved everyone. To that end, she embraced gays during the AIDS crisis.

But her personal life was falling apart, as Jim was increasing distanced from her. She became addicted to prescription medication and Diet Coke. Meanwhile, Jim was constantly scheming to build more and more showy assets from funds pledged to his PTL Ministry, all the while looking after his own needs handsomely. Negative stories followed him and his comeuppance was just a matter of time.

The story is an interesting one, but I struggled with the treatment from writer Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick). It was hard to take the characterisations of Jim and Tammy Faye seriously with their constant giggles (add to that the exaggerated affectations of D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell). I saw them as caricatures rather than characters. That’s not to say that the fine actors didn’t do well. They did, but the way they were directed detracted from the experience.

The essence of the story is about falsity and invention. While the Bakers paraded nicety, he was about feathering his own nest. What they built was a house of cards. The reality was that she was lonely and unhappy. The other element explored is the difficult relationship Tammy Faye had with her mother, who she desperately wanted to please. But it seems that no matter what she did, it wasn’t enough for her mum, who it must be said feared the worst from the outset of her relationship with Jim.

So, while the plot had substance, unfortunately its packaging left a lot to be desired. The treatment of the subject matter was too lightweight for my liking. Just like the gullible parishioners, I felt like I was being had.

Alex First

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