The Eyes of Tammy Faye

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If there was any doubt whatsoever that Jessica Chastain is one of the greatest actresses currently working, The Eyes of Tammy Faye will eradicate it. She plays Tammy Faye Bakker, a notoriously over-the-top person who, as she got older, practically became a caricature of herself. Notorious for wearing near-circus clown levels of makeup, she was a unique figure in pop culture. Astonishingly, Chastain humanizes her. It would have been so easy to do a mere imitation, to let the makeup do the work. The actress instead digs deeper, suggesting a woman so desperate to be noticed that she took measures to make sure she couldn't be missed. This is one of the defining performances of Chastain's career.

Directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), the movie is pretty straightforward in depicting Tammy Faye's life. As a child, she seeks approval from her mother (Cherry Jones) that is never forthcoming. In college, she meets aspiring preacher Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), and together they start a traveling ministry. A chance encounter with a colleague lands them a spot on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, where Jim goes on to create “The 700 Club.” A few years later, they break out on their own, establishing a separate faith-based show, “The PTL Club.” That's when the couple becomes corrupted by money and fame, have affairs, and eventually endure a very public crash-and-burn. Vincent D'Onofrio co-stars as Jerry Falwell, the duplicitous preacher who purports to help them while envying their success.

During the early scenes, Chastain shows the pain as Tammy Faye finds herself pushed into the background. She's kept in check by Jim, despite being a key to their network's popularity. The donations become Jim's new wife, as he has bigger and bigger dreams, including the world's first Christian water park. Later in the film, the actress conveys how Tammy Faye works to establish a voice for herself, even if it means clashing with the conservative nature of evangelicalism. One of the most striking scenes finds her compassionately inviting an AIDS patient onto the program after hearing Falwell express homophobia. Through it all, Chastain makes this woman's journey real. For all the craziness around her, Tammy Faye has confidence in her ability to spread a positive message.

In the hands of a less accomplished actress, the film would have fallen apart. The Eyes of Tammy Faye seeks to go beyond the surface image to learn what made its subject tick. What it suggests is that she went into things with Jim expecting to be an equal partner, only to fall victim to the evangelical belief that a woman should be subservient to her husband. Jim uses her when it's convenient for his goals, then pushes her away when he wants to celebrate what “he” built. In that sense, the movie is a shrewd indictment of how useless such antiquated notions are in the face of a strong female.

Showalter takes an unusual approach to storytelling. Perhaps because the Bakkers had a larger-than-life image, everything in the film is pitched a notch or two above reality. Saying that this is a comedy wouldn't quite be accurate, although it does have a slightly askew take in how it presents serious subject matter. Even if we're not asked to laugh directly at Jim and Tammy Faye, the invitation is there to laugh at how oblivious they are to the inherent hubris of their ever-expanding empire.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye makes one crucial misstep that prevents it from being the masterpiece it might have been with Chastain and the also-excellent Garfield at the helm. Abe Sylvia's screenplay simplifies a lot of problematic behavior in order to make Tammy Faye as sympathetic as possible. She took full advantage of a lavish lifestyle funded by viewers of "The PTL Club," making her partly culpable in the couple's downfall. The film mostly sidesteps that, pinning the blame primarily on Jim. And while he definitely was responsible for the most serious fraud, there's no attempt to dramatize how his wife felt about that. Surely, she had at least a general awareness that something illicit was going on. Did she choose to look the other way? If so, why? And did she feel guilty about it?

Diving into the gray area rather than portraying it as black-and-white would have added an important dimension to the story. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is still worthwhile, though, thanks to the fascinating rise and fall of the Bakkers, as well as the work of the two lead actors. Through Chastain's efforts, we stop seeing Tammy Faye as a punchline and see her as a woman whose sincere intentions were often thwarted by misogyny, her husband's ego, and the hypocritical nature of evangelicalism. For any mistakes she may have made – and goodness knows she made a few – she was at least consistent in her desire to spread a gospel of love and acceptance to the masses.

out of four

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.