The Eyes of Tammy Faye - an unfair villainisation?
New film is a sympathetic portrait of a Christian woman who spectacularly fell from grace
Many people, secular and Christian, may well know the names of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. PTL TV, televangelism, money, sex and scandal are all words synonymous with the Bakker family.
The film The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a sympathetic retelling of the life and work of Tammy Faye, charting her conversion as a child, her rise, fall and to redemption post Jim’s incarceration. To start this review off, I want to prepare the British viewer for how American it is as a film about Christianity. It goes without saying as it’s a film about two American evangelists, but it could be quite jarring to British viewers who know church to be very different: even if you are from a charismatic background, this has the saturation turned way up!
I can’t help but wonder about the intentions of this film. Is it to pay respects to a woman who aided the LGBTQ+ community in being seen and heard (in and out of Christianity)? To pay respects to a woman of history and a pop culture icon? Or is it to strip any blame off her, to make Tammy Faye nothing more than a victim of circumstance and manipulators?
I know very little of Tammy, I have not seen documentaries on her or read her biography, so I can’t say if the film is a perfect portrayal of her and her life as a whole. But on viewing it I felt the desire was to make Tammy nothing more than a victim of circumstance and manipulators, similar to the portrayal of Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.
The film certainly villainises Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and the company of Christian men he idolised. It does so in a soft, colourful way and not with dramatic scores written in the minor key and moody lighting. Therefore, in having Jim the bad guy, it portrays Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) as a doe-eyed, blameless, fully innocent woman, who had no idea her of husband's desires, manipulation of the PTL donations, the debt that came with his grand designs and the spending that made his desires a reality.
Both Chastain and Garfield play their roles exceptionally well. Basing your role on a living person is hard, but both their performances sucked you in and held you in throughout the film, making them feel very real and true to life.
As the film highlights Jim’s greed, desire and passion to grow an empire it subtly holds a mirror up to Christians to say “this is how the world still sees you”. Not necessarily a powder keg of controversy ready to explode, but of brightly coloured, somewhat cringy people, who have a shallow view of the world. But in saying that, when there is a controversial explosion, like Ravi Zacharias, not only does it show the world we as Christians are as flawed as everyone else, but in a few cases, lowers Christian credibility. These large personalities speak for the faith and so every congregation member is put under the same umbrella of controversy.
With the two leads of the film being charismatic Christians, I would like to finish this review with a look at the theology and the use of the Bible within the film.
Firstly, Both Jim and Tammy are able to quote scripture at the drop of a hat. Verse, chapter and book. They do this more than anyone in leadership or in study that I’ve ever met. And with this encyclopaedic biblical knowledge comes with it a slight manipulation to win a discussion, to put someone in their place, to get viewers and donations. The usage of the Bible here reeks of poor exegesis and hermeneutics, as if written by a non-Christian, and I wouldn’t be surprised if either Jim or Tammy had a poor biblical understanding past the words on the pages.
Related to this is the fact the prosperity gospel theology runs throughout the film, a dangerous theology which unfortunately is one of the most well known in the media. The film pairs the prosperity gospel with evangelical conservatism, and even though it was set 30-40 years ago, it may shape people's perceptions of what Christianity is.
All in all, this not a film written by Christians for Christians. It tells the story of the dramatic life of a Christian woman who may or may not be a victim of circumstance, and in doing shows Christians how the world view us, and what we preach and stand for. How do we counter that narrative?
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Mat Gale is a Creative Designer with the Baptist Union of Great Britain
Interested in discussing and exploring some of the themes The Eyes of Tammy Faye raises?
Kova PR has created a faith guide, which can be downloaded here.