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film review

Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain in the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye.Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios

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  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • Directed by Michael Showalter
  • Written by Abe Sylvia, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
  • Starring Jessica Chastain, Cherry Jones, Andrew Garfield, Gabriel Olds, Vincent D’Onofrio
  • Classification PG-13
  • Available in theatres starting Sept. 17

What did Tammy Faye Bakker know, and when did she know it? That’s the question at the big, bouncin’ heart of this giddy film, about the disgraced televangelist (Jessica Chastain, all in) who built an enormous Christian-right TV empire, which crashed in a scandal that defrauded followers of nearly $100-million. But I’m not sure we ever get an answer.

Chastain has legitimate feminist bona fides, so she tries mighty hard to find savvy and humanity in Tammy Faye. We meet Faye as a girl in 1952 in International Falls, Minn., the oldest of eight children of dour, divorced single mother Rachel (Cherry Jones). “You’ve got a demon inside you,” Rachel tells Tammy Faye. Translation: the girl wants what she wants, and at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis in 1960, that turns out to be baby-faced Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who even then was preaching the gospel of self-enrichment: “God does not want us to be poor; he will gift the faithful with eternal wealth.”

It’s an appealing message, and Tammy Faye its bubbly, irrepressible messenger. An instinctive performer, she will do and say anything on stage or camera, and everything she says, she means with all her heart. Some audiences appreciate her honesty; others watch just to see what she’ll say next. But she carries Jim from a travelling puppet show of kids’ sermons; to the nascent Christian Broadcast Network, where she cannily announces her pregnancy on air; to their own daily variety show, the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club; to the 24/7 PTL Network. By 1979 (pre-Fox), PTL is the fourth-largest TV network in the U.S., with international ministries and hit Christian-pop records for Tammy Faye.

The film tells the story of Tammy Faye Bakker, the disgraced televangelist who built an enormous Christian-right TV empire which crashed in a scandal that defrauded followers.Daniel McFadden/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios

Chastain wants Tammy Faye to have backbone, so at an afternoon soiree, we see her plop herself down at the men’s table, where she challenges Christian superstars Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). When Jim tells her, “God told me he wants” whatever Jim wants, Tammy smacks back, “Well, He told me I have to speak up.” She also wants Tammy Faye to get some credit for the insanely lucrative rise of the PTL network, the dovetailing of conservative Christianity and immense wealth, and the advent of the Christian Right as the potent political force it is today. (The film makes a point of noting that when Falwell finally pushes them out of his ministry, Jim’s salary is $300,000, while Tammy Faye’s is only $100,000.)

Yet at the same time, Chastain portrays Tammy Faye as stubbornly innocent about where all the money is coming from, because, you know, buying matching mother/daughter fur coats and draping yourself in gold is so fun! The production design, wardrobe, hair and makeup departments have a gas, of course, as the mansion fills with gilt and Tammy Faye’s makeup morphs into a Joker-like masque, which made her a late-night punching bag and a meme before memes. But when Jim’s fall from grace finally arrives in 1989 – he was sentenced to 120 years in jail – Tammy Faye is so shocked!

The director, Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), and the screenwriters Abe Sylvia, along with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato who made the 2000 documentary of the same name, either can’t or don’t want to confine themselves to a consistent tone. At one moment it’s arch, tongue-in-cheeky, “look at how nuts these folks are;” at the next, we’re asked to admire Tammy Faye for defying the powers that be and embracing AIDS patients because it’s the Christian thing to do.

The film has an inconsistent tone, and at the end abruptly suggests a new villain: America.Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios

Tammy Faye died of cancer in 2007. Was she a patsy, or smarter than she seemed? Were the millions of hot tears she shed on TV real or showbiz? I’m not suggesting the film needs to tell us explicitly which side it comes down on. It should, however, at least know for itself.

The last scene, where Tammy Faye sings in a sea of red, white and blue, abruptly suggests another villain – a popular one these days. There’s a trend developing in American films, to suggest that whatever bad thing happened, the United States itself is to blame. In Flag Day, Sean Penn implies that the U.S. made his character into a con man. In Stillwater, the U.S. is the murderer. And now here: who is Tammy Faye, really? America. And why did she do what she did? Because America.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)