In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain play Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the self-styled Christian TV personalities who did more than anyone else to mold televangelism into a game-changing, culture-shaking, credit-card-maxing industry/cult/diversion. The movie, which is a ticklishly fascinating rise-and-fall saga, was directed by Michael Showalter, who almost always makes comedies (“The Big Sick,” “The Lovebirds,” “Wet Hot American Summer”), so you might expect him to treat the Bakker saga as a delicious slice of kitsch — which, in a sense, it was.
There’s a bit of that, but Showalter is up to something more sly, and maybe more artful. In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” he gives Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker the full dignity — and scandal — of their humanity. He knows that a lot of people think of the Bakkers as walking caricatures, and that in the case of Tammy Faye, with her infamous troweled-on ’60s-raccoon-from-Maybelline clown-freak makeup, she verged on self-parody. The Bakkers’ story is already over-the-top. So Showalter, who based the film on Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name (the script is by the TV-series scribe Abe Sylvia), made the shrewd decision to play it all straight. The Bakkers, more than three decades after their scurrilous fall from grace, don’t need to be mocked — they need to be understood. Chastain and Garfield give performances that are brashly entertaining but also canny and layered, as the characters get caught up in something far bigger than themselves. The Bakkers were hucksters of a grand order, and the film uses their spectacular greedhead soap opera to tell the larger American story of how Christianity got turned into showbiz.
The film kicks into gear in 1960, when Jim and Tammy Faye meet at a Minneapolis bible college where Jim is already the breakout showman. With his slick pompadour and easy grin, he looks like an early rock ‘n’ roller (or maybe a snaky Frankie Avalon). He’s just 20 but knows his scripture, and when he’s onstage during a student preacher seminar, looking down at the pews with a couple of dozen other students in them, he wants to be more than just another dull conduit for God. Jim wants to grab people, to make them listen. Of course, that means making it all about him.
Jim asks the students why Christianity always has to be so glum and punishing. Why can’t it be about being rewarded in the here and now? He’s thumbing his nose at the dowdy piety of the college, which is why Tammy Faye, seated in the pews, is laughing. (He starts to pitch his sermon to her.) But listening to Jim’s words, we can already hear an early version of the gospel according to people like Joel Osteen (the ultimate heir of the Bakkers), who preaches with a huge golden globe spinning behind him, telling his flock of millions that being a Christian can mean having a life that glows with success. Jim is already selling the message that faith pays, a message he’ll preach all the way to the bank.
Tammy Faye, meanwhile, is a vivacious believer who falls in love with Jim and is happy to hitch herself to the choo-choo train of his showboat faith. She’s a born performer too; she takes a Porky Pig bubble-bath cap and fashions it into Susie Moppet, a puppet that allows her to talk in a little-girl voice — which is both cute and creepy, since it’s Tammy Faye’s fun-loving way of reaching out to children (who are some of the first people the Bakkers win over, the idea being that if you can get the kids their folks will follow). But it’s also that Tammy Faye is an arrested personality who’s never more herself than when she’s the voice of a puppet.
The two become roving evangelists with no money but a fancy car. But as they’re coming out of a motel in Virginia, fate brings them into contact with the Christian Broadcasting Network, a fledging local operation run by Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), who hires them to do a children’s show, sort of like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with bible stories. At CBN, Jim becomes one of the hosts of “The 700 Club,” the station’s flagship nighttime talk show. The show had originally emerged out of a telethon (in 1962, 700 members coughed up $10 apiece to keep the station afloat — a miracle!), but Jim, with his velvet voice and quick sense of humor, has what it takes to turn “The 700 Club” into a smooth Christian version of “The Tonight Show.” He’s not just the host — he’s the star. And he becomes addicted to it.
So does Tammy Faye. She insists on being an integral part of the TV empire (the first of many demands that reveal her to be her own woman), and when the Bakkers are given their own program, they pioneer the new metaphysic of televangelism. Christianity becomes a feel-good variety show. The pious horde become fans, hypnotized (and guilt-tripped) into calling those phone lines and pledging their hard-earned cash. The passing of the collection plate becomes a “Let’s Make a Deal” ritual, letting those at home feel like they’re part of the show.
And it’s all being done for Jesus!
Yet with the Bakkers, it gets more deranged than that. The hook of their two-headed persona is how relatable they are, and so the ups and downs of their marriage become intertwined with the show — and part of the fund-raising. (Tammy Faye, in an act of passive aggression, first tells Jim that she’s pregnant on camera.)
Garfield plays Jim with a gentleman’s manners but, beneath them, a voracious gleam. He wants the fame. He wants the big house, the kind his boss, Pat Robertson, has. He…wants. He founds the PTL Satellite Network and becomes the syndicated Elmer Gantry of the TV den, conning his audience and using his newfound power to act out his desires, which include his attraction to men. When Tammy Faye spies Jim wrestling on the floor, in a little too friendly a fashion, with his assistant, she’s appalled — not because her feelings (or the film’s) are homophobic, but because she realizes, with a shock, that she doesn’t know the man she married. And that goes double when she starts to get wind of Jim’s financial crimes.
Why watch “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” instead of the original documentary, which is superb? Because this version, in heightening our connection to the characters, sheds new light on who they were and what they did and why why they did it. It’s Tammy Faye who comes to occupy the spiritual center of the movie, and Chastain, tapping a bombs-away flamboyance she has never before approached, makes her a mesmerizing diva-victim who keeps evolving.
First she’s a beaming ’50s innocent in a swirl of Donna Reed hair. Then she’s a baby-voiced puppet maestro. Then she’s a bored housewife who realizes that she loves the limelight. Then she’s an instinctive Christian feminist who, at a house party, demands a seat at Jerry Falwell’s table (he thinks women should be seen and not heard). Then she invites Steve Pieters (Randy Havens), a man with AIDS, onto the show, and whether or not her tears for him are real or crocodile tears (with Tammy Faye, it’s kind of both), she takes a stand for compassion.
Vincent D’Onofrio plays Falwell as a gruff power broker who considers gay people to be the devil, and we see, through him, how the new Christianity will market itself, competing with secular America on its own corrupt terms. Tammy Faye, by contrast, is a chirpy exhibitionist, but by offering God’s embrace to people with AIDS, she shows what true Christianity is — and what the Christianity around her is turning into. (It’s turning into hate.) Then she wakes up one day and realizes that her husband is not only a philanderer but a thieving sociopath, selling bogus shares to fund the Heritage USA theme park, using pledges for God as a leveraged piggy bank.
Jim, of course, gets the downfall he deserves. Tammy Faye, meanwhile, sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” through her tears (and mascara). Chastain shows you that Tammy Faye was a dupe, in too deep not to be part of the chicanery, but also a kind of innocent. In a sense, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is what I’d call a very good TV-movie. It held me every step of the way, but it has a prosaic, down-the-middle, one-thing-after-another quality. It’s a bit long, with a final act that could have been better structured. Yet these two actors never let up. Garfield makes Jim a postmodern con artist who looks ahead to our own era, and Chastain finds the complex heart of a woman who had a genuine love inside her, but loved fame too much. In their way, they created a pathology that lived beyond them, all built around the question: If the least Christian thing you can do is to sell your soul, is it any more Christian to save one because it belongs to the highest bidder?