The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel


The Reverend Robin Meyers is preaching blue in the reddest of red states.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Robin Meyers, Carlton Pearson, Marlin Lavanhar, Lori Walke, Bernard Brandon Scott, Nehemiah D. Frank, Robert Jones, Colin Walke, Nicole Ogundare. Directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler

It is no secret that religion has become a powerful political force in 21st century America. While the Founding Fathers touted a separation of church and state (and Jesus himself believed that one should render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and render unto God what was God’s), in more recent days the Evangelical right has become, if you’ll pardon the expression, hell-bent on rewriting history and turning their faith into a de facto state religion.

American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is a documentary that attempts the difficult task of examining the role of religion in modern politics and how God became a Republican. They center largely on liberal-leaning Robin Meyers, the pastor of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Chris Church in Oklahoma City. Author of the book Why the Christian Right is Wrong, he is a jovial sort who often jokes “In Oklahoma, you can be a Democrat or you can be Christian. You can’t be both – it’s just peculiar.” He and his associate minister Lori Walke (unusual enough that she is a female minister in a profession dominated by men) and the Reverend Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church, are bastions of liberalism in a largely conservative pastoral community.

Oklahoma is perhaps the reddest of the red states, with every single county having voted for Donald Trump in the last Presidential election and for Mitt Romney in the one previous. The state is overwhelmingly Southern Baptist and to a very large extent that is who seems to be the driving force for the political arm of the Christian right.

However, as theologian and historian Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott of the Phillips Seminary in Tulsa and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Apostle Paul and his works. He reminds us that the modern Bible is essentially a “4th century creation masquerading as a 1st century eyewitness report,” referring to the Council of Nicea called by Emperor Constantine of the Holy Roman Empire to consolidate the Bible into a single version with agreed-upon chapters rather than dozens of different versions each with their own set of writings. Several gospels, such as the Book of Mary, were permanently removed, remaking the Church into a patriarchal enterprise whereas earlier women were a big part of the movement as crypt paintings and early Christian artwork shows.

Dr. Robert Jones also moves into more modern history, depicting the rise of Jerry Falwell and of politically-motivated pastors and the groundswell of the religious right that became a large part of the Tea Party and now the base that drives the Republican party. The movie also unflinchingly looks at the role of racism in the religious right, concentrating on the Greenwood Massacre – locally and incorrectly referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – in which a thriving African-American community called Greenwood, also known as the “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground by an angry white mob.

This becomes truly evident in the Mayflower’s decision on whether to become a sanctuary church for those fleeing deportation. In Oklahoma, most pastors would say that there’s no decision whatsoever – sanctuary churches run counter to what modern evangelicals believe that America’s borders must be protected. One wonders what Jesus might have thought except that, as Dr. Jones points out, Jesus and his parents were unwanted refugees as well.

In all honesty the discussion is pretty one-sided here, although those with differing viewpoints were invited to be interviewed and all declined according to the filmmakers. Still, it is an eye-opening film that uses the gospels themselves to point out the inconsistencies in modern evangelical thought. The movie uses music effectively (particularly an effecting sequence in which an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia” is played) but the movie is mostly talking heads, although the conversations are incredibly important as they go to the very soul of American Christianity.

It is hard to believe that any Fox News-watching conservative Christian will be moved very much by this, although the story of former associate minister to Oral Roberts, Carlton Pearson, shows that change is possible as he takes a church whose founders were ringleaders of the aforementioned Greenwood Massacre and turned it into a church where African-Americans were not only welcomed but have become dominant. In that sense while liberals will find this documentary fascinating, I fear that it is literally preaching to the choir.

REASONS TO SEE: The background information gives a good sense of how the Christian right acquired political clout. Very conversational but important conversations.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get a little bit preachy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of the results of the Greenwood massacre.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evangelicals
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Man With the Magic Box