By Jacob Sahms
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker rose to prominence with their televangelist show The PTL Club (1974-87) and the Christian-themed amusement park Heritage USA. In the dramatization of the 2000 documentary of the same name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye looks at how the couple fell in love, pursued their understanding of God’s calling on their lives, and ultimately used their charismatic ways to swindle people.
Jessica Chastain has delivered critically-acclaimed performances in films like The Help, A Most Violent Year, The Martian, and Zero Dark Thirty, but her portrayal of Tammy Faye is stunning. While the audience sees the televangelist’s life briefly as a young girl who wants desperately to please her church pianist mother (Cherry Jones), to experience the joy of God’s pleasure. This desire drives her, to pursue Scripture, to go to North Central Bible College in Minnesota, where she meets Jim (Andrew Garfield).
While the Bakkers did not invent prosperity theology or televangelism, they certainly maximized on the ideas to bring themselves personal wealth and rally funding and support. The couple finishes each other’s sentences with Biblical quotes, allying themselves with Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and attempting to join forces with Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). The tension grows as Tammy Faye fights to broaden how love is discussed and finds herself directly opposing the men leading the other televangelism opportunities, as the Bakkers and Falwell prove to be competitors in television, politics, and fundraising.
One might initially wonder what a film about 1980s televangelists would mean to today’s cinema or church. The reality is that the church continues to struggle with how to love, how to use media, and how to help people use their gifts toward building the kingdom of God. The reality is that the Bakkers clearly began their ministry with purity of heart and a genuine desire to serve, but somehow became sidetracked by a lifestyle of excess. Their brokenness in relationship to each other and their followers unravels the empire they’ve built, as accusations about sexual impropriety, corrupt financial decisions, and drug use tear it all apart.
It’s not hard to see how the charisma of the Bakkers wove a powerful spell, but the fractures in the foundation are. evident, too. It’s a sharp reminder that power, including in the church, requires checks and balances, moderation, and accountability. Whenever the expectations we expect (from others, from our own aspirations, from pressure to succeed) cloud our ability to wholeheartedly pursue God, and we over-act out of our own interests, our brokenness undercuts even our best intentions. The film shows Tammy Faye’s incredible desire to be loved, to be accepted, to matter, and Jim’s incredible narcissism. When the Bakkers crumble, they do spectacularly through the delivery of Chastain and Garfield, with a push from D’Onofrio’s Falwell.
The verdict will be out until after the Toronto International Film Festival, and into Academy Award season, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye has the earmarks of an award-winning film. It shows the worst excesses of those deluded by their own desires, and the beauty of faith when pursued for the right reasons. It’s the best and worst of Christianity, a warning to those who would follow, a reminder that to faithfully pursue God, that Jesus must remain central and nothing else.