As depicted at multiple spots in the Gospels, a defining moment of Jesus Christ's ministry was when he got angry. Jesus comes across a makeshift bazaar set up at the temple, which gets his blood boiling — he sees the exploitation of parishioners happening on His watch. He proceeds to flip over some tables and clear out those who were making money on the temple grounds, proclaiming that this was a house of prayer, not a den of robbers.
In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jesus float down from Heaven and start destroying cameras and sets at the Praise the Lord Club studios, from where Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are reaching out through televisions across the globe. The Bakkers represented ground zero of the modern iteration of the den of robbers Jesus talked about, the grubby prosperity-gospel peddlers who continue to take advantage of Christians for financial gain.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye — showing now at the Belcourt as well as Regal and AMC locations — serves as a reprieve for Tammy Faye, though not at all a full pardon. Star Jessica Chastain gets a golden opportunity here to dig into what made the squeaky-voiced televangelist tick. From singing pitchy gospel hymns in gaudy makeup to spreading the Good News through kitschy puppet shows, Tammy Faye Bakker was an icon in the religious world during the 1970s and ’80s. Her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) was the silver-tongued sermonizer who led the duo’s charge, a scaly anti-Mr. Rogers who could charm the needles off a cactus while slyly siphoning out the water inside.
Director Michael Showalter (central member of the iconic The State cast, and director of The Big Sick and more) tells the Bakkers' story with icy cynicism. While some might groan at the thought of another life-spanning biopic (a genre Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story double-tapped back in 2007), Showalter’s film has a dark streak to it. Using Chastain and Garfield’s excellent performances, the filmmaker plays the Bakkers’ rise and fall with a satirical edge while also keeping an eye on Tammy Faye’s heart, which is sometimes in the right place.
Chastain’s performance is boisterous and sincere — think Ana Gasteyer as Bobbi Mohan-Culp in those SNL sketches crossed with Liza Minelli as Arrested Development's Lucille 2. She takes what could’ve very easily been a boring caricature and plays it with a healthy amount of respect. Throughout the film, it’s Tammy Faye who seems to have Christianity's true tenants at least somewhere in sight. Meanwhile her wolf-in-a-cardigan husband prowls across television screens with his appetite for fame and fortune, donations for his “mission work” affording him a big house overlooking a big body of water.
The Bakkers' empire of course ultimately crumbled under the weight of Jim’s financial misdeeds and other nefarious acts (an alleged rape silenced with hush money is part of that equation). A fiery exchange between Chastain and Garfield makes for some of Showalter’s best material. These two distinct performances carry a lot of themes, and the film just wouldn’t work without both actors giving it everything they’ve got. Showalter astutely balances the hilarity of the Bakkers’ absurd evangelizing and the darkness of their misdeeds, and the film teeters between sound religious discussion and solid-enough biopicking. HBO’s outrageously good The Righteous Gemstones has done a better job surveying the totality of prosperity-gospel hypocrisy (Baby Billy forever), but The Eyes of Tammy Faye is sharp, adding just enough humanity to Tammy Faye while understating the harm she inadvertently caused millions of faithful people by enabling her husband’s grift. Even if Tammy Faye wasn’t fully in on the scheme, she was still an accomplice.
In the end, the late Tammy Faye’s big heart won out more often than not in her own life. She says she strived to show everyone God’s love, and that could be seen during a landmark moment when she featured a gay AIDS activist minister on her talk show. (Jim Bakker spent time in prison for some of his crimes, and he now hosts a Trumpian program that recently tried to sell people on colloidal silver as a cure of COVID-19.) The Eyes of Tammy Faye stands out, if only because it’s so good at telling hard truths and examining difficult people.