Radical Wolfe Review | A Ham in Full

by Andrew Parker

Director Richard Dewey’s documentary Radical Wolfe is one of those projects that does a disservice to its subject by being disgustingly laudatory. Little more than a parade of eager talking heads swooning and tripping over themselves to exclaim their bottomless admiration for late American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, Dewey’s film misses the point of the author’s works entirely in favour of bland, grating hagiography and misplaced hero worship. Wolfe, a lifelong provocateur and proud pot stirrer with a notoriously large ego, might’ve been flattered by what’s being said about him here, but he also probably would’ve hated just how vigorously Dewey tries to cozy up to such greatness.

Since he burst onto the scene as a reporter in the 1960s, notable snappy dresser Wolfe was a force to be reckoned with, whether readers loved his particular style of prose (lots of punctuation, highfalutin vocabulary, onomatopoeia, cultural needling that would charitably be described today as “problematic”) or loathed it. Heavily associated with the “new journalism” movement, Wolfe helped to shape an entire era of American mythology and sought to expose what he saw as hypocrisies and contradictions with a razor sharp mind and wit. His stories about the roots of NASA (The Right Stuff), 80s yuppies (Bonfire of the Vanities), and psychedelia (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) have become the stuff of literary legend; controversial best sellers that sometimes invited open scorn and praise with equal fervour.

Although one wouldn’t necessarily know that from watching Radical Wolfe, a title inspired by one of the writer’s most incendiary articles: a critical lashing out at Leonard Bernstein for holding a posh, elitist fundraiser for the Black Panthers. There are precisely three major moments in Radical Wolfe where Dewey allows any openly negative talk about a subject who openly courted controversy. One time subject and former race car driver Junior Johnson describes Wolfe as “a crank.” Professor and former Black Panther Jamal Joseph takes Wolfe’s writing to task for his views on race and the author’s refusal to see a bigger picture and in favour of taking cheap shots at wealthy elites and other easily skewed, stereotyped targets. And there’s some archival footage of an irate John Irving – a fellow author that Wolfe deliberately started a feud with, alongside contemporaries Norman Mailer and John Updike – profanely ranting about Tom’s writing.

And that’s all the meaningful criticism one will find in Radical Wolfe, a literary documentary made almost exclusively with fans of the author in mind. Not only does this make Dewey’s documentary inherently one sided outside of mere acknowledgements of dissenting voices, but it also rings hollow when one considers the subject. For better or for worse, Wolfe rarely cared what anyone said about him. His job as a novelist and reporter was to keep chipping away at a topic until he found a nerve to scrape. He wanted the beef. He wanted the smoke. He didn’t care what people were saying as long as it was about him. It’s arrogance, but it’s also remarkable unflappability.

Radical Wolfe plays the legend at every turn and not the person, which might be a result of the writer being a notoriously private figure. But that doesn’t excuse Dewey and his interview subjects from making a film so fawning that it almost feels like a proctological exam. Dewey builds Radical Wolfe heavily around a Vanity Fair article about the author penned by Michael Lewis, who perhaps most notably wrote the books and pieces that would inspire the likes of The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blind Side. It’s obvious that Lewis is an enthusiastic fan, and  he was inspired by Wolfe’s journalistic sensibilities, but when everyone else pretty much falls in line behind the credited documentary writer’s views, it makes for a dull experience to sit through.

Radical Wolfe ends up being little more than fan service; a breakneck paced bibliography combined with a sustained standing ovation from the choir. Wolfe’s works provoked reactions, but the film’s simplistic approach to his career will be more grating to viewers than the works themselves (some of which are narrated throughout the film by actor Jon Hamm, who proves to be an awkward choice to provide the author’s voice). Radical Wolfe doesn’t encourage viewers to think for themselves or to even seek out its subject’s books and articles. Instead, it’s a bunch of fans parsing the reactions of others without adding much of any substance themselves. It’s a lazy, hero worshiping documentary that lacks any journalistic or narrative bite; precisely the two things Wolfe himself would’ve brought to the table.

Radical Wolfe opens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, September 22, 2023. It opens at ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa on September 25.

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