Evangelical Christians have long been folks the rest of us love to hate. Long pilloried as intolerant, unbalanced, frenzied and hateful, Evangelicals have borne the brunt of enormous amounts of focused satire and investigative journalism. Moreover, the movement's superstarsOral Roberts, Jerry Falwell and Jim and Tammy Bakkerhave long been the target of particularly withering public scrutiny, criticism and loathing.
Therefore, it was clear from the start that "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" (IMDb listing) was going to have to do a heroic amount of work to convince a skeptical audience to shed a tear for Tammy Faye Bakker, Christian television's famous font of self-pity and inch-thick makeup.
But "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is a shocker. Because after the singing and crying is done, Tammy Faye emerges as a sympathetic, warm, emotionally vibrant woman, snared and then freed by the backstabbing world of Christian broadcasting. By alternating the intense camp of Christian television's content with the chilling backroom maneuvering that led to the Bakkers' eventual downfall (and Jim Bakker's imprisonment on fraud charges), "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" tells a compelling, absorbing story.
The film is framed as a fairly conventional morality story charting a young Minnesota girl's rise, fall and redemption, but its deft use of interspersed video clips and scene-setting hand puppets makes it a pleasure to watch. And while "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" navigates through a treacherous sandstorm of Christian personalities and politics, it never loses sight of its center.
And what a center she is. There's no question that Tammy Faye is a bit, uh, exuberant. Her outsized personalityand glorious penchant for self-dramatizationcolors every encounter. But "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" charts Tammy Faye's ascent from the host of a humble Christian puppet show to the queen of a media empire and it shows thoughtful tolerance, balance and a wry sense of the absurd where many documentaries might have sunk to tedious moralizing and doomsaying about the future of the Christian Evangelical movement.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is made in full cooperation with its namesake, and this should give any audience pause for thoughtthe filmmakers are clearly sympathetic to their subject, and amongst the money, drugs and backstabbing of the Christian Right, Tammy Faye is made to shine as a beacon of loopy, lovable goodness. But her natural frailties shine through, as well. It's impossible to watch "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" without being bowled over by the woman's self-absorption, occaisional bouts of stunning naivete and zesty emotional tangents. But that's okay we learn about some of the good things along the way, and Tammy Faye Bakker has moved from self-caricature to human being by the time the film has ended.
At the same time, the film works a little too hard to establish Tammy Faye as a fixture of gay campits narration (by Rupaul Charles) and repeated interviews stressing her gay-friendly outlook present her as a sort of pro-gay Christian martyr. But it's a significant point: she was one of the first high-profile Christian evangelicals to embrace gays and AIDS patients. This is no small thing for a woman swathed in a culture famous for its fiery, Old-Testament intolerance, and its arguable overemphasis is a minor mistake committed by a very engaging film.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is one of most outrageously quirky, cleverly executed and entertaining documentaries since "Roger and Me." There's little doubt this film will change minds, turn heads and bust guts.
Filmfodder Grade: A