Directed by: Michael Showalter
Written by: Abe Sylvia
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones and Vincent D'Onofrio
There have been a few fictional films adapted from popular documentaries, some good- Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006) and Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), and some bad- Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk (2015) and David Gordon Green’s Our Brand in Crisis (2015). The good adaptations add to the experience of the documentary, through arresting acting and inventive direction and through telling the story using filmic devices that are special and unique to the fiction film. The bad films don’t do this. They simply retell the story using actors instead of archive footage, narration and talking heads. They therefore struggle to account for their own existence. Unfortunately, The Eyes of Tammy Faye falls into the latter category.
The film is a by-the-numbers biopic of television-evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Director Michael Showalter is determined to hit every stale beat of the already tired biopic formula. We begin with Tammy as a young girl. She is not allowed to attend church with the rest of her family because she is a child of divorce. This doesn’t stop the theatrically inclined Tammy who is naturally drawn to this particularly bonkers section of Christianity. She sneaks in, is touched on the head by a Pastor and immediately drops to the floor and begins speaking in tongues. She is a natural.
In bible school she meets Jim Bakker. Jim and Tammy are considered rebels amongst the ultra-conservative crowd- they listen to rock-n-roll music and dance in public! From their marriage on, Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia treat us to every cliche in the book. It is a rags to riches to disgrace story that any regular film watcher has surely seen before. Think montages with spinning headlines and progressively aging make-up. The filmmakers are so obsessed with moving the story forward they fail to meditate for any portion of time on the story’s juicier themes, like the relationship between religion and capitalism in America or Jim’s sexuality. The film doesn’t trust the audience cares enough about it’s subject to dig deeper into the shady affairs of their church- in short the film plays it safe.
Jessica Chastain, who is also a producer on the film, is a bright spot in the central role. She creates a certain mystique around Tammy. She is chirpy and sometimes ditzy, however there is a side to her that is ruthless and progressive- flying in the face of the conservative hierarchy. It is an interesting contrast as Chastain hints at how conscious Tammy is of her husband’s dodgy financial dealings. They speak to each other in religious platitudes that paper over the obvious cracks in their relationship. Andrew Garfield grows into his role as Jim. Struggling with young Jim’s naive positivity before becoming more comfortable with the nastier and more infantile parts of his personality.
For those who haven’t seen the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000), I would point you to that rather than this film. The documentary captures the crazy world of the tele-evangelists, this film only skims the surface.