Documentary Review: ‘Radical Wolfe’

Greetings again from the darkness. There have been many great writers over the years, yet only a handful of these have become celebrities themselves … in contrast to celebrities who become “writers”. Tom Wolfe was one whose personality was as big (sometimes larger) than his books. Sporting the trademark white suits that had him labeled “a dandy”, making frequent talk show appearances and numerous public book readings and speeches, Wolfe achieved the celebrity status that evidently was important to him. Richard Dewey’s documentary is based on the “Vanity Fair” article written by Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”, “The Big Short”, “The Blind Side”), who also appears on screen here providing insight into Wolfe the writer and Wolfe the man.

Dewey presents a pretty basic chronological biography of this man whose mastery of word usage has led him to be recognized for introducing some familiar phrases into the language. These include: “the right stuff”, “good ol’ boy”, and “the Me decade”. Wolfe penned many bestsellers across multiple genres, as well as countless articles and essays with his observations and commentary on society and counterculture. Some of his most famous works are “The Right Stuff” (adapted into an exceptional 1983 film), “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (adapted into a regretful 1990 DePalma flop), and “A Man in Full”. It’s that latter 1998 novel that kicked off the high-profile literary feud between Wolfe and rival writers John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving.

Wolfe’s background as a newspaper journalist certainly contributed to his long-standing commitment to research and details. Among those interviewed here and speaking to his expertise are Gay Talese, Christopher Buckley, Tom Junod, and the aforementioned Michael Lewis. Also included are numerous clips of Wolfe’s TV appearances, and even comments from his daughter, Alexandra. Talese in particular captures the essence of Wolfe when he describes him as (something along the lines of) an extremely polite man who transitions into a terrorist with a pen in hand. Not many can be described as an elegant gentleman AND with adjectives such as cynical, mean, outlandish, and contrarian. Tom Wolfe can … and has been.

As a writer, Wolfe turned his focus on Black Panthers, Leonard Bernstein, astronauts, New York City, Junior Johnson’s NASCAR, and Ken Kesey’s LSD hippie counterculture. Sure, he was often criticized for his use of exclamation points and ellipses (a habit we share), yet he was also behind “New Journalism”, aka literary journalism – making stories more interesting to read. He suffered through depression after a heart attack, but the man did things with words most of us can only dream of. Tom Wolfe passed away in 2018 at age 88, but his white suit lives on in images, and magical words live on through publications. For a man who adored adoration, he would likely be fine with that.

The film will debut in limited theaters beginning September 15, 2023

David Ferguson

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