You gotta open your eyes
You better know who’s making all the rules
Is he a man of God
Or just a baby with the power tools?
- White Heart, “Power Tools”
When this song came out in 1989, it was taking direct aim at the industry of televangelists. People were (and on some level still are) throwing piles of money at these people on their television set trying to find a way to gain favor in their faith, and it seemed like all at once the scandals behind the scenes hit the headlines. One of the biggest of these was the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and their story (kind of) in the film based on the 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”.
Directed by Michael Showalter, this chronicles their story from Tammy Faye’s (Jessica Chastain) childhood in the Midwest through meeting Jim (Andrew Garfield) in college, their whirlwind romance and marriage, ascent to prominence, and eventual fall from grace (no pun intended, but that was a TV movie based on their story with Kevin Spacey and Bernadette Peters).
As a man whose faith is a very large part of his existence, I made sure going into this screening that I was able to separate my negative feelings for televangelism from the simple evaluation of a film as art. In doing so, I was absolutely floored by Chastain’s performance. Once I was about thirty seconds in, I was completely sold on her as the title character down to the minute details of body language and performance (her singing was her “in” to her larger plan of the role she wanted to play in their ministry). Garfield is good as the money-driven-disguised-as-spreading-the-Word Jim, but the only moments I was truly sold on him was when he wore Bakker’s signature glasses. He definitely sells the slimy and deceptive qualities of the man who would wind up in prison for his crimes and sins, but there could have been a bit more done in the appearance department here.
Perhaps the biggest crime this film COULD commit is if the performance of the amazing Cherry Jones is overlooked. Playing Tammy Faye’s disapproving and approving at the same time mother, Rachel, she commands the screen in a way that only she can while making sure that the audience understands that this is Chastain’s movie to captain. It is a foregone conclusion that the studio will be pushing for Chastain in their awards campaign, but they should REALLY more than consider Jones as a Best Supporting Actress as well.
From a scriptwriting standpoint, this is where my evaluation steers a bit off of the path. Having never seen the source material, the title alone would dictate that this leans more towards her side of that story, painting (no pun intended) Tammy Faye Bakker as simply a doe-y eyed girl from the Midwest that got caught up with the wrong guy and led down a primrose path while trying to do the right thing for her and her God. For me, this is an illustration of what I refer to as the “Cam Newton Effect”; that is simply with that much money running around, I find it VERY difficult to believe that she had no knowledge of at least some of the more nefarious goings on behind the scene at their PTL (Praise the Lord) network. This by no means overshadows the performances of this cast, but for those unfamiliar with the story it is important to take this telling with a grain of salt. (And yes, I was doing everything I can to avoid the “taking it as gospel” thing. There are WAY too many puns in this now.)
While this story (and others like it) do tend to frustrate some of my sensibilities, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” if taken through the proper frame of mind is a fascinating story of how people can use others (and their own) versions of guilt and faith to guide their own means. Granted, sooner or later it will all catch up, but even though the ending is well-documented, the journey to get there is fascinating on a number of levels.