For the better part of 50 years, Tom Wolfe occupied an outsized role in American life that no contemporary journalist could hope to match. From providing the spark that launched the New Journalism movement with his essays in the 1960s to captivating the nation with “The Right Stuff” in 1979, Wolfe approached nonfiction writing with a level of creativity that forever blurred the lines between reporting and literature.
Once he had nothing left to prove, he turned his attention to fiction and enjoyed even more success. His Wall Street satire “The Bonfire of the Vanities” is widely regarded as one of the decade-defining novels of the 1980s. The book continued to explore Wolfe’s lifelong fascination with the way the quest for status shapes human ecosystems across socioeconomic classes. While the novel is a distinct product of its time, it remains relevant for introducing phrases like “Masters of the Universe” that never left our collective vocabularies. (The novel also spawned a misbegotten 1990 film adaptation directed by Brian De Palma.)
Wolfe’s carefully crafted public persona eventually became as notable as his writing. The author was famous for wearing white suits, giving him the image of a detached literary aristocrat who could make damning observations about society from a distance without ever being truly impacted by changes in the world. No matter how much his style evolved, he never let go of his gleeful contrarianism, which earned him a level of controversy in the second half of his career that mirrored the praise he enjoyed in his prime.
“Radical Wolfe,” a new documentary from director Richard Dewey, offers a comprehensive look at the late literary provocateur. The film follows Wolfe’s life from his years as a Yale Ph.D. student and reporter disillusioned with formality to his breakout with “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “Radical Chic” to his mainstream stardom in the 1980s and his curmudgeonly final years embracing the George W. Bush administration. The film features interviews with Michael Lewis (whose Vanity Fair article inspired the documentary) and the voice of Jon Hamm reading excerpts of Wolfe’s distinct prose.
Kino Lorber will release “Radical Wolfe” in theaters on Friday, September 15. Watch the trailer, an IndieWire exclusive, below.