“A lot of it is about tension,” Mary Norris, described as The New Yorker’s “Comma Queen,” says in “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb,” building a surprising amount of her own as she talks about punctuation. “You know something’s coming when there’s a semicolon.”
In fact, wars have been waged over it as one learns in Lizzie Gottlieb’s riveting look at the five-decade professional relationship between her father, the legendary book editor Robert and Caro, who has dedicated his life to authoring a five-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Although the director hadn’t met Caro until her father’s 80th birthday – he’s turning 89 during the time of filming – she would seem to take after both men in telling their story, honoring her dad’s proclivity to read manuscripts within 24 hours and offer detailed notes with a doc that’s fleet-footed and meticulous, while somehow covering as much ground as Caro is prone to through the lens of a single – and singular – partnership. “Turn Every Page” catches the duo as they embark on what they both expect to be the final chapter of the Johnson bio, though as Gottlieb notes at the start, there were certain rules she had to abide by when neither were eager to let anyone into their private process, having to interview them separately and never when they were trading notes on the actual tome, which Caro is still visiting locations and reporting on well into his eighties.
It is largely left to others to describe their relationship, which is said to have never moved beyond seeing each other as intellectual equals and peers rather than friends and varies between collegial and contentious in a pressurized process that resembles the creation of a diamond. But Caro and Gottlieb are both hyper-articulate and passionate when speaking to their craft, making for a riveting and insightful look into one of the great literary projects of all time, if not the greatest, which is saying something particularly for Gottlieb, who mentions as an aside that he was the one who convinced Joseph Heller to turn “Catch-18” into “Catch-22” because it sounded funnier. The Johnson biography doesn’t actually take center stage until midway through “Turn Every Page” when there is so much else to cover, from Caro finding his niche after working as a reporter for Newsday looking for more ambitious work than daily reporting and Gottlieb read books day and night as the son of a public school teacher and learned there was a profession where he could turn such passion into a career. The two were set up for a professional marriage by the literary agent Lynn Nesbit, who read an early draft of Caro’s blockbuster biography on Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” and knew he needed a partner for life, enabling the kind of historical investigation that will probably never be replicated.
When Caro has always been led by his fascination with how systems of power work, exploring that give-and-take between the author and the editor offers a fascinating parallel and Gottlieb, the director, brings the pair’s collaborations to life with vivid recollections straight from the source accompanied by well-sourced and tastefully curated archival, the film is able to speak to both cultural transformation and the surprising ways in politics and American life in general where the more things change, they stay the same. “Turn Every Page” strikes exactly the right balance between warm personal memoir and clear-eyed consideration of subjects the two have devoted their lives to thinking about, whether it’s specifically the matter at hand or how best to get to the truth of it and when they continue to invest so much attention in getting it right, it couldn’t be more appropriate to see that it ends with a bit of a semicolon itself when Caro still hasn’t announced when volume five of his Johnson biography will be published, yet after making so much history already he and Gottlieb aren’t about to leave any unfinished business.
“Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” will screen again at Tribeca at the Village East on June 15th at 5 pm and June 18th at 8 pm and at the Cinepolis Chelsea on June 19th at 3 pm.