In "Radical Wolfe," director Richard Dewey uses a Vanity Fair article, penned by writer Michael Lewis, about now-legendary American novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe (author of “Bonfire of the Vanities”) as a sculpture armature around which to build the narrative. Lewis wrote the source material that inspired the likes of “Moneyball,” “The Big Short,” and “The Blind Side,” and clearly sees Tom Wolfe as a hero and mentor.
I’m also a long-time fan of Wolfe. I've read “The Right Stuff” at least 10 times, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" at least thrice, and his entire works at least twice. In my experience, no other author has rendered such tasty, hysterical phrases. No one had more groundbreaking, innovative use of writer’s tools (extreme use of punctuation, onomatopoeia, highfalutin vocabulary), used to create a visual impact, except maybe Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism.
Some say Tom Wolfe’s break with traditional “what, why, when, where, how” journalism went hand-in-hand with the general downfall of modern society. I beg to differ. Wolfe’s innovations were a boon to those who’ve never been fans of uninspired, dry, mechanistic news writing that parches the brain. Paradoxically, it was Wolfe’s rigorous, intrepid journalistic roots that anchored his flamboyant flair.
Hagiography?Some have labeled “Radical Wolfe” as unabashed hagiography to the point of being embarrassing: lots of eager talking heads engaged in swooning and bootlicking hero-worship. Wolfe himself, albeit a to-the-manor-born satirist, provocateur, incorrigible stirrer-up-of-trouble and cultural needle-er, with unparalleled X-ray vision, astounding ear for accents and inflections, and an off-the-charts *cough* bovine-excrement detector *cough* would have likely been a bit flattered by the portrait painted by “Radical Wolfe.”
However, while he’s been accused of having a notoriously huge ego, the film reveals Wolfe to be first and foremost—despite the flamboyant style and trademark white-suit-bowler-hat-wearing dandy-fication—a powerfully principled, private, conservative-leaning, old-school masculine, fearless, amusingly tranquil, unerringly polite, American family man and Southern gentleman deeply grounded in common sense. And if that right there isn't a Tom Wolfe-type sentence, I don't know what is.
Over the years, I've come to see the white Wolfe costume less as elitist and more as a prescient and calculated grasp of instantly recognizable branding and trademarking. In the same way Prince adopted the color purple, and macho Jason Momoa has now adopted the incongruous color pink—Tom Wolfe disguised his salt-of-the-earth sensibilities by annexing an incongruous, foppish, Southern-plantation white.
BeginningsSince he exploded out of Yale University, almost in spite of himself, and onto the literary scene as a reporter in the 1960s, Wolfe was an immediate heavyweight contender as a man of letters. The film establishes that it was his Virginian upbringing, rubbed wrong by the snooty sensibilities and politics of the Eastern Ivy League elite, that put a perennial outsider's rather weighty and long-lasting chip on his shoulder.
Associated heavily with the “new journalism” movement, Wolfe almost single-handedly liberated an entire era of Americana-mythology from obscurity, much like Michelangelo liberating his sculptures from the marble that surrounded them. Yes, that’s a bit of an overreaching comparison, but I’m talking technique-wise, not art-wise.
Wolfe wrote iconic books and articles that captured and deconstructed the times. And I when I say deconstructed, I mean in the sense of whistle-blowing and pointing out societal and cultural instances where the emperor was not wearing any clothes. His literary excavation of NASA’s little-understood fighter-pilot roots in “The Right Stuff” laid the groundwork for “Top Gun.” His reportage of Ken Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters and the LSD-riddled early Grateful Dead concerts in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” defined 1960s' counterculture.
In “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” he told the Southern legend of formerly moonshine-transporting and cop-outrunning Junior Johnson, and brought awareness and a brand-new NASCAR-appreciation to one of America’s more obscure, favorite pastimes. Mr. Wolfe’s writing elucidated America’s rich but heretofore unsung subcultures (love them or hate them) and also indefatigably exposed the inherent hypocrisies and contradictions therein, with lacerating wit and stinging rebukes.
The TitleThe title “Radical Wolfe” is inspired by one of Wolfe’s most incendiary articles, “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” wherein Wolfe used a literary machete to cut elite symphony conductor Leonard Bernstein’s legs off for throwing a posh, posing, self-aggrandizing, Upper East Side, 1970 fund-raiser soiree for the notorious Marxist-Leninist Black Panthers. The razor sharp satire used to expose the hypocrisy is delicious. Here’s a sample:
What’s highly amusing about “Radical Wolfe” is to witness the fact that the thoroughly unflappable Wolfe could not have cared less about what his critics said about him. As a novelist and reporter, he saw his job as chipping away the obscuring marble from around a topic, or, like a dentist, drilling down until he hit a cultural raw nerve. He didn’t care what people were saying as long as he eventually hit on the truth of the matter.
There’s some fun, archival footage of variously bemused and irate contemporaries such as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, and John Updike, excoriating or lauding Wolfe’s writing. Journalist Tom Junod, looking uncannily like Joaquin Phoenix, also weighs in. All in all, “Radical Wolfe” is an illuminating and highly entertaining look at the late, great American iconoclast, and—it’s probably safe to say by now—folk hero.