Turn Every Page – The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb
When it comes to everyday popularity of historians, Robert Caro must have one of the highest batting averages out there. I haven’t read a piece of historical non-fiction biography that wasn’t assigned to me since 2010, and I know this guy’s name off the top of my head. It’s Caro and the guy who did the Hamilton biography. That’s the Mount Rushmore of historical biographies – the kings of books so fat they easily double as door stops or improvised weapons against home invaders. Among these books, Caro’s The Power Broker reigns supreme. It is the rare biography that has crossed over into nearly being a status symbol. I confess I’ve had a copy since the start of the pandemic, but have yet to start it. After watching Turn Every Page – The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, I’m inspired to pull it off the shelf and dive in.
Turn Every Page is not only interested in providing background on Caro’s process and work, but also in taking a deep dive into his partnership with his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb is no slouch himself, having edited hundreds of books over his illustrious career. The documentary details the delicate manner in which these two fundamentally different (sometimes even warring) perspectives and sources of expertise must come together to produce a harmonious end product.
The insights into Caro’s work process are breathtaking. One moment, in particular, stands out: while working on one of the volumes focused on the life of Lyndon Johnson, Caro had the opportunity to interview Johnson’s younger brother, Sam Houston Johnson. A tremendous opportunity, but Caro found he wasn’t getting the level of rich detail he craved. So, he brings Sam back into his childhood kitchen and has him sit in the very chair he sat in as a young boy. Caro sits behind him so that everything appears just as it would be in Sam’s memories. It is only then that Caro asks his questions again. Talk about literal background research.
The documentary is also ingenious in the manner in which it takes you into the details of both men’s lives. There is a certain risk that a documentary focused on the crafting of non-fiction biographies might be less than engaging for certain audiences. By balancing showing the men at work while acknowledging the quirkier aspects of their personalities, they come across as fully realized. Caro types his manuscripts up on the typewriter and haphazardly shoves the resulting small mountain-sized stacks of copy into a space above his refrigerator. Gottlieb collects plastic purses and proudly displays them on his bedroom wall, much to the chagrin of his wife. These moments are humorous but are also crucial to presenting these men without the sheen of perfection I find too frequently applied in these types of showcases.
Turn Every Page offers a peek behind the curtain of a complex and critical industry. Ironically, what it offers very little of is the dynamic between its two titular protagonists. Aside from one scene, they never interact on camera. Despite director Lizzie Gottlieb’s best efforts, this cannot help but feel a bit like a missed opportunity. In this framing, both men are free to lay their own narratives. It would have been a pleasure to see them challenged to edit one another’s perspectives.
TURN EVERY PAGE – THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERT CARO AND ROBERT GOTTLIEB (2022, 112 min)
In Theaters in NY & LA December 30, 2022
Directed by Lizzie Gottlieb. Producers: Joanne Nerenberg, Jen Small, Lizzie Gottlieb. Director of Photography: Mott Hupfel. Editing: Molly Bernstein, Kristen Nutile. Music: Clare Manchon, Olivier Manchon. With Robert A. Caro, Robert Gottlieb. Appearances by Ethan Hawke, Lisa Lucas, David Remnick, Lynn Nesbit, Majora Carter. USA.
A Sony Pictures Classics Release.