Let me make one thing clear before I get into my true take on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jessica Chastain is riveting in the titular role. She shines in every scene in a film that is best viewed as a performance showcase. The movie around her is confused as to what it is and what it is about. All focus seemed to go into making sure Chastain's performance was the highlight. It is but the film feels like it has little else to offer, almost as if director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) thought that it would be enough to carry the whole thing.
This is a shame as the life of Tammy and Jim Bakker is fascinating, full of rich themes on faith, misogyny in religion, and acceptance. In the few scenes that the film touches on these themes, it shines. The film's best film finds Tammy Faye interviewing a gay man with HIV named Steve Pieterson on her show, something no one in her position did. It is an undeniably powerful moment and humanizes Faye. In fact, much of the film aims to humanize her into a sympathetic character. This aspect of the film works thanks in part to the layers Chastain offers behind the caked-on makeup.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye covers life to birth and in doing so, becomes little more than a timeline film. The film's structure never goes beyond a "this happened then that happened" type of storytelling. We learn about her childhood interest in religion and then her courtship with Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). From here we follow their rise and fall in the Christian television business. Faye is never one to be put in the shadows and soon etches out her place on television. Vincent D'Onofrio shows up here and there as the towing figure Jerry Falwell, someone who does not appreciate Tammy's progressive views.
Chastain shines in every moment of the film. She disappears into the role. What makes it remarkable is how her performance seems to bubble up from within, a full embodiment of Tammy. In comparison, Garfield is all external mannerisms, hairpieces, and funny enough makeup. Showalter may not direct the film with a clear purpose but Chastain and he have crafted a uniquely sympathetic view of Tammy Faye Bakker. If anything is clear, it is that the men around Tammy did nothing but try and hold her back. Still, this hardly constitutes a true theme of the film.
Montages and loads of makeup and costumes fill the film but little else emerges. The film lacks depth behind all the pageantry. The Eyes of Tammy Faye never defines Jim Bakker. He's a weak and confused man but we never understand if he is a con man or a purist with lax morals. Garfield is talented but the role is underwritten.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is still, somehow, worth seeing. Despite its problems, Chastain makes it worth the time. She gives one of the year's best performances, a tour de force that genuinely makes you reconsider the real Tammy Faye.