Chastain throws himself into Tammy Faye Bakker, the infamous wife of the king of television, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). In a rather traditional biopic structure, Tammy Faye’s life unfolds from her childhood fascination with religion to her courtship of a young Jim. Tammy Faye from Showalter’s film is outspoken and combative and dares to take a seat at a table with the men advising her husband on his growing career, to the great contempt of a conservative like Jerry Falwell (a brilliant Vincent D’Onofrio). Showalter and Chastain play Tammy Faye as a pure soul, one who believed in all her causes and was surrounded by inferior men who consistently tried to dim her inner brightness.
Whether this is true or not is not a problem. I kindly embrace the positive side of Tammy Faye, especially given her progressive belief in acceptance and homosexuality – Showalter recreates the famous interview with Steve Pieters, who acknowledged the existence of AIDS at a time when none in Tammy Faye’s profession was willing to do so, and it has undeniable emotional power. Chastain catches her like a constantly spinning fireworks, a person that people like Jim and Jerry knew how to use to reach an economically driven fan base, but could not really understand. She was clean. When Chastain says, “I just want to love people,” she clearly believes it.
The image rehabilitation for Tammy Faye Bakker, however, only reaches dramatically so far and would have been better served in a richer, more ambitious film. Think of something like “I, Tonya,” a film that also rebuilds a very public figure, but does so with the wit and passion that is lacking here. Too much of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” leans on make-up and costumes to tell its story and cuts montages of “Prime Tammy Faye” together like a wheel of high at a Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. It all lacks depth or dramatic purpose, something amplified by a really thin representation of Hills. Garfield is a very talented actress, but writer Abe Sylvia never bothers to get under the skin of Bakker. Was he a charlatan or a purist? He’s obviously a weak man, but he’s also a bit of an empty slate here, the straight man to Tammy Faye’s passion, and he comes as signed.