Abe Sylvia has written a script about two hapless bible students who create with nothing more than a hymn, a bible and a puppet their wildly successful televangelist empire. It’s no small miracle that he’s accomplished this without commenting on the immoral hellscape the story stands upon. Not only has he succeeded in making Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker empathetic and lively screen characters, he’s written a star turn for Jessica Chastain, who so zealously embodies Tammy Faye she’s likely to win an Oscar.
Her brilliant performance is very nearly matched by the sniveling, self-eating one brought to the film by Andrew Garfield as the (ultimately) defrocked Jim Bakker. Cherry Jones appears as the stark and repressed Rachel, Tammy’s mother, and it’s this performance that both chills and burns through the hypocrisy that drapes the world of televangelists, and Abe’s script, like a counterfeit shroud.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the tale of a corrupt and failing marriage, perfectly suited for our post-Trump era. It’s a marriage entered into by two narcissists who preem and pose their way through hours of begging for money on TV but can’t connect with each other. They discover in the hardest way that money can’t buy you love — your spouse’s or God’s — and ill-gotten, won’t keep you out of jail.
Despite growing disaffection from the chucklehead she married, despite the financial and legal pressure on the house of cards they built together, despite her superficialities, makeup miscues and overt materialism, Tammy Faye was authentically open-minded about those her televangelist brethren had locked out of the tent. For what it’s worth, she spread her love to the LGBTQ community, people of color, the handicapped, lowly housewives, Democrats and Jews.
Abe has deftly woven her inexplicable advocacy for these unwashed souls into his script. While she was never at the forefront of the cultural changes that’ve taken flight since she first blinked those false eyelashes at us from inside the boob tube, she played her part, and that resonates through the film and sticks with you, the way those eyelashes stuck with her all the way to the grave.
Wirth is executive producer-showrunner on the Netflix original series “Wu Assassins,” which he created.