Photo courtesy Searchlight Pictures

Looking back, it’s almost impossible to believe Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were real people. At the peak of their international fame in the late 1980s, they were more like cartoon characters – Tammy Faye especially with her big hair and geologic layers of makeup.

The world delighted in making them social pariahs as they became the poster children for corrupt televangelists who defrauded their followers while living lush and lavish lifestyles.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a bit of a reclamation project in that the movie attempts to peel back the layers and find the real human beings underneath all that ridiculousness; and thanks to some truly powerhouse performances, it actually pulls it off.

Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye in a performance that is so immersive and heartfelt that she is unquestionably the leader in the clubhouse for the Best Actress Oscar.

We meet Tammy Faye as a dramatic and earnest little girl growing up in northern Minnesota in the strict, no-nonsense home of her deeply conservative evangelical mother Rachel (Cherry Jones).  

Tammy Faye takes her unflagging faith to bible college where she meets fellow student Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, who almost matches Chastain with his transformation into the soft-spoken, charismatic preacher).

The pair fall in love, get married and begin their traveling ministry with Tammy Faye doing puppet shows for kids and Jim preaching early forms of the prosperity gospel, in that God wants his followers to be wealthy.

The pair catch the attention of Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), whose Christian Broadcasting Network was trailblazing television programming for evangelical Christians.

Jim and Tammy Faye become instant stars and leave to start the PTL Satellite Network that made them incredibly rich and powerful to the point that they were sought after by politicians and other influential evangelicals like Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Directed by Michael Showalter, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” faithfully documents Jim and Tammy Faye’s rise and fall from glory while opening a window on their odd and at times distant marriage and partnership.

Tammy Faye’s greatest sin is her hunger for the spotlight and while her naiveté leaves her willingly blind to the shady financial dealings of the PTL, we also see a woman who nobly fights for her seat at the table (quite literally in one scene) while breaking from most of those in her faith by embracing the LGBTQ+ community.

In many ways these are sad and silly people, but Chastain and Garfield put their humanity at the forefront and make them, if not totally worthy of forgiveness, at least worthy of some sympathy.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” paints a fascinating picture of a time and place when religion, politics, media, capitalism and a metric ton of mascara came together and made a spectacular mess of things.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse.

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