Despite that title, we never really see the world through the eyes of Tammy Faye Bakker. Instead, the film only serves up a superficial look at the eccentricities we already know: The shimmering eye makeup. The lashes and lipstick that are tattooed in place. Bakker and her fellow televangelists are a fascinating example of the gaudy faux-spirituality that thrived during the 1980s, but the film never drinks deeply from their false grail. In the end, we’ve only witnessed a recreation of Jim and Tammy Faye’s two-bit carnival without gaining any real understanding of it.
Ironically, Eyes begins in closeup, as Tammy Faye’s trademark makeup gets applied like armor. From here, we leap back to her childhood, when she first hears the call of God. Tammy’s initially banned from joining her family’s church, as her very existence is proof of her mother’s earlier marriage and divorce. She eventually sneaks in, and wows the congregation by immediately speaking in tongues. This sets up the dynamic of her entire life: How much of Tammy Faye’s ascent is fueled by genuine spirituality, and how much of it is just performance?
The key moment in that ascent occurs when she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) in bible college. Their quirks instantly connect them: He has the immaculate coif and plastic charisma of a game show host; her ample makeup and flirty vivaciousness immediately separate her from their puritanical classmates. After a brief courtship consisting mainly of Fats Domino tracks and a few nights of quiet dry-humping, Jim and Tammy Faye join in holy matrimony. With this union comes a mission: They vow to market their ungainly hybrid of tent revival hootenanny and gaudy Vegas lounge act into a lucrative, never-ending scheme.
What follows is a hedonistic odyssey out of the Old Testament: Jim and Tammy Faye build a decadent empire of mansions, water parks, and private jets that serves as the absolute embodiment of ravenous greed. They also attract both judgment and jealousy from Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), who acts as kingpin for an exclusive clique of religious hucksters, including Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jimmy Swaggart (Jay Hugely). These men loathe Jim and Tammy Faye’s secular pandering, along with her unconditional tolerance of homosexuality. As a result, Falwell and company begin to undermine and expose the couple at every opportunity.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye gets almost of all its power from Chastain’s lead performance. Her Tammy Faye is a potent mixture of relentlessly cheery, deceptively savvy, and monumentally insecure. The film alludes that her hanger for the spotlight stems from a chilly relationship with her pious mother (Cherry Jones), and a need for validation that will never come. Garfield’s work as Jim is a little more difficult to read: His performance feels like caricature, but Jim Bakker was every bit that histrionic and emotionally artificial. It doesn’t help that Garfield’s old-age makeup is quite noticeable, and it draws even more attention to the fact we’re watching an actor. In any case, Garfield is either thoroughly brilliant or a half-step off, and I honestly can’t tell you which in one viewing.
That brings me to the film’s central problem: I still don’t understand Jim and Tammy Faye. Clearly, they used religion as both sword and shield, something that could smite enemies and keep the curious at bay. We see them rise to the edge of Heaven and plunge to the depths of Hell, but we never learn what drove them in either direction. Tammy Faye asserts that no one ever sees her without makeup, and it’s as if the filmmakers believe her. I have to think Jim and Tammy were different people when the lights were down and the wigs were off. Unfortunately, that’s also the one thing the film never shows us.
126 min. PG-13. HBOMax.