If the journalist and writer Tom Wolfe had been a painter, even murals would probably not have been a big enough medium for him. The white-suited airman from Virginia, with Manhattan-sized prose and rocket-powered reputation, died in 2018, but his literary legacy as the Big Bang of the new journalism lives on, even as a new documentary about him, “Radical Wolfe,” suggests it never will give one again. But talent and Herculean commitment aside, perhaps today’s departure from the “One Towering White Man’s Size Fits All” school of American cultural storytelling (see Jann Wenner’s recent implosion) isn’t such a bad thing.
Nonetheless, Richard Dewey’s hyped-up bio-documentary is, at least in its most casual form, a vivid look at what turned the reporter-trained Wolfe into an insider-outsider, how he took the leap to explain our rapid change in exaggerated, acrobatic sentences, roving world of cliques, castes and subgroups. He found themes that explained us as a whole: a NASCAR champion ignored by the elite (“The Last American Hero”), liberal drug experiments (“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”), an exclusive fundraiser by Leonard Bernstein for imprisoned Black people Panthers (“Radical Chic”). But most important is Tom Wolfe oneself America explained – he was just as important to the package as his subjects.
Using clear-eyed admirer Michael Lewis’s 2015 Vanity Fair article “How Tom Wolfe Became…Tom Wolfe” as an organizing template, Dewey reconstructs the author’s life: Lewis is the main on-screen interviewee, with Wolfe’s own voice heard throughout is (one assumes from his seat). -Downs with Lewis), while memories and tributes are voiced by those who knew him, had him, loved him: the writer Gay Talese, the agent Lynn Nesbit, the journalist Tom Junod, his daughter Alexandra. Wolfe’s childhood isn’t really discussed, but from his time at Yale we can sense what motivated him – politeness in his personal life, indefatigability in his professional life, and daring extravagance on the page.
Excerpts are delivered in dutiful voiceover by Jon Hamm, but the stories behind the stories are the flavors we crave. As a young reporter, Wolfe rebuffed ambitious Senator John F. Kennedy’s attempt to suppress an article. He forged his signature immersive style during a late night typing what he thought were just the rough notes for a magazine article about hot rodders that he couldn’t crack but that so overwhelmed his Esquire editors had that they published it verbatim (“The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”). And that Bernstein Panthers party? How he crashed it is a classic among snooping journalists.
If “Radical Chic,” his rollicking satire of social-status liberalism, hasn’t aged as well as, say, his astronaut epic “The Right Stuff,” Carter thoughtfully positions it for the current moment: You’ll want to read it (or read it again), but with the perspective of former Panther Jamal Joseph in mind. Although the film attempts to portray Wolfe as neither a Republican nor a Democrat, his conservative politics were hardly a secret, reinforced by the occasional on-screen presence of laudatory right-wingers Niall Ferguson and, bizarrely, Peter Thiel.
The stratosphere into which The Vanity Fire took Wolfe was, as the documentary suggests, both a blessing and a curse. A superstar journalist had cracked The Great American Novel (though its tendencies were already novelistic), but the success also cemented him as a major attraction. After that, he could still make up a legitimate national conversation (campus sex with “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” immigration with “Back to Blood”), but Wolfe’s breathless, anthropological Technicolor style quickly fell out of favor. Does anyone even remember that he trashed Darwinism in his last published book, 2015’s Kingdom of Speech?
As far as honors go, the documentary is always alive. Archival clips race by and no one manages to get more than a sentence or two out before the film cuts out, meaning it never engages as much as you’d like given the colorful, dense life on display would. One can imagine the subject himself – the founder of the “I” decade and the “I” career – wondering why there aren’t more Wolfes in “Radical Wolfe.”
Duration: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Play: Laemmle Royal, Laemmle Glendale, Laemmle Claremont