The Eyes of Tammy Faye — Revisionist Empathy

I’ve been trying to come up with a word to describe The Eyes of Tammy Faye and the best I can think of is “interesting.” The movie isn’t really saying anything that we don’t already know — it tells the story of the life of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) from the time she was a young girl until her ultimate fall from grace. Tammy’s mother and father were divorced, and though her mother was remarried, Tammy wasn’t allowed in the local church when she was little because of her mother’s past actions. But she wanted to preach about God’s love, so she went to a Christian college, where she met Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), the man who would soon become her husband. 

The new couple is kicked out of college because the school did not allow students to marry. So they make it by traveling and with Jim preaching at different churches throughout the U.S., until they’re given the chance to meet Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and start their own show on a Christian television channel. From there, their popularity and wealth only grow, but also so do their scandals. It’s not a spoiler since the film is based on a true story, but their whole “ministry” eventually crashed and burned when Jim was outed as a fraud and sent to prison, leaving Tammy with none of the extravagance or wealth they had come to enjoy. 

Now, the reason I can’t think of a better word to describe this movie is because I’m really not sure what it’s trying to say. Chastain has said, “At a time when the government wouldn’t even say AIDS and communities were dying, here’s this woman in this world run by white men. She’s saying Christians are supposed to love everyone and yet, we’re so afraid of an AIDS patient? She was really out there and radical and cool and actually speaking what faith is supposed to be.” This quote just makes me wary of the movie’s intents. 

On one hand, this theme is great, and the movie really leans into it. There are multiple scenes throughout that depict Tammy standing up for people in the LGBTQ+ community and those with AIDS, always to the strong dismay of Jim and his boss, Jerry Falwell [shudders] (Vincent D’Onofrio). Tammy Faye leans into the gender politics of the evangelical church — any time Tammy is upset at Jim for any reason, it’s her responsibility to forgive him and to “be there” for him as a wife [shudder x2]. Jim isn’t expected to take responsibility because he’s “under a lot of pressure trying to spread God’s word to millions of people.” The film attempts to portray Tammy as the downtrodden wife who tries, but really can’t do anything to stop her awful husband. All this does is create an interesting dissonance between her real life persona and the character in this film. The persona portrays someone who peddled the false prosperity gospel concept, but who was one of the few to actually prosper; and the movie portrays the same thing, just with a bit more nuance. To really evaluate what I think of the movie, though, I just have to disconnect from reality and only take into account what the movie shows. 

What the movie shows is a woman who loves God, but who is led astray by a charming snake. From the beginning, you’re made to believe that Tammy feels God and just wants to follow his calling. She sneaks her way into the church service and immediately begins speaking in tongues, proving to everyone that her drive for her spiritual life is true. It’s not until she meets Jim that her self-obsessed side comes out. Gradually she trades worshipping God for worshipping the television camera and everything it represents, until she delivers the line, “It’s not what you have in stuff. It’s the people that count.” 

The character of Tammy isn’t 100% a victim of Jim’s borderline evil, but she’s not 100% complicit either. By the end, I think the movie does condemn where she is personally and spiritually. You’re not supposed to be on her side. Jim and Falwell are the real villains of the story — Jim is kind of Darth Vader to Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Emperor (minus the redemption at the end). They’re both evil, but Falwell is the despicable, irredeemable character. Jim comes close to being irredeemable, but he’s given just enough nuance to show, hey, he’s a person. Tammy is even further in the “hey, she’s a person” category. The movie does highlight her care for the LGBTQ+ community numerous times throughout. Oftentimes in front of Falwell with Jim basically saying, “Yeah, yeah, your heart’s in the right place, but we need his money.”

I do appreciate the nuance that the movie brings. It could have easily shown a couple of monsters profiting off of people’s genuine faith and beliefs (and if you want to argue that’s what they are, then I probably wouldn’t disagree), but it showed the circumstances that all came together to make Tammy who she was. It shows the influence of Christian evangelicalism and nationalism as well as the inherent misogyny in fundamentalist Christianity. It’s just that at times, it feels disingenuous. Chastain will likely get awards recognition this year, and deservedly so, but it sometimes feels like that’s the main drive behind the performance.

Ultimately, I think I do like where this lands with its “grifters are people too” message. If we categorize everyone like the Bakkers as evil, money hungry monsters and don’t go any further than that, we’ll just widen the existing divide. But if we seek to understand where a person came from and how they got to be who they are, it may open the door for better empathy and understanding. The Eyes of Tammy Faye at least attempts to show where Tammy came from. If one of the “bad ones” was good at one point, or at least had some good in her, then there’s a good chance the others do, too.

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