Part biopic, part history lesson, part English class, the documentary Turn Every Page explores the 50-year professional relationship and friendship between author Robert Caro (now 87 years old) and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb (now 91). Their work together began with Caro’s 1974 masterpiece The Power Broker, concerning New York city planner Robert Moses, and continues to this day, through the final (still-in-progress) volume of his five-volume Lyndon Johnson biography. Directed by Lizzie Gottlieb (guess whose daughter she is), the film (subtitled The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb) is a thoroughly engaging, highly enlightening, and often quite humorous stroll through the lives of both men who are responsible, in different ways, for some of the finest works of literature (fiction and non-fiction) the world has ever seen.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Gottlieb and Caro are rarely seen on screen together, unless they are actually working together. Gottlieb has long since retired from his days as a book editor (at Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf), and later the editor-in-chief at The New Yorker, but he has vowed to meet up with Caro any time he has new chapters ready to be edited. The two men sit down together to go over the pages, and the filmmaker finally gets permission from the pair to film the process, albeit without sound. The two playfully take verbal jabs at each other, but it’s clear that there’s a mutual respect that is undeniable.
But most of Turn Every Page focuses on the two as individuals and their impact on the world at large. Gottlieb has edited books from a range of authors, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Bill Clinton (who is interviewed in the movie), Salman Rushdie, John le Carré, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Nora Ephron, Michael Crichton, Bob Dylan, and John Gardner. Throughout the film, he discusses what it is he looks for in a narrative but also makes it clear that he never attempts to impose his own voice over the writer. In many cases, he puts himself in the role of the ultimate fan of a particular writer and wonders what would please that person most. He’s also deeply involved in the world of ballet and for years was associated with New York City Ballet and published books from dance giants like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Margot Fonteyn.
Perhaps because of who the filmmaker is or maybe because Caro is more guarded about his process, we get to see Gottlieb as a more fully formed person in this work. That being said, watching Caro comb through the Lyndon Johnson archives with absolute delight is one of the film’s highlights. He discovers things that prove theories that others never could, such as how brazenly Johnson stole his election to the U.S. Senate. The path he takes to discovering that fact is remarkable and could easily be the subject of its own doc or political thriller. His passion for the career of Johnson may seem strange, but to Caro, his trajectory typifies American politics in every destructive and useful sense.
With testimonials from cultural figures ranging from Clinton to Conan O’Brien, as well as interviews with family members, including former actor Maria Tucci, Gottlieb’s wife since 1969i, we come to understand that these two men were not just well-versed in their respective fields; they were absolutely influential across many generations of politicians, writers, activists, and certainly readers. By the end of Turn Every Page, you feel like you’ve taken a journey, perhaps even an adventure, with these two very different people. But together, they’ve created something singular and important, much like this documentary.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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