Image: Sony Pictures Classics

“Turn Every Page” is a wonderful eye-opening documentary about two giants in the literary world, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Caro and legendary editor Robert Gottlieb. The two frenemies spent the last 50 years collaborating on a series of best-selling biographies, “The Power Broker” based on the life of urban planner Robert Moses, responsible for much of New York’s landscape, and the four-volume set “The Years of Lyndon Johnson”, must-reads for anyone interested in politics and power. Directed by Robert’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, the documentary gives you an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the important relationship between a writer and editor while delivering plenty of laughs and smiles along the way. Essential.

The premise for the documentary began seven years ago when Lizzie heard writer Robert Caro give a speech about her father. As she explains in the film, she grew up in a home visited by many of the authors who collaborated with her father. With a resume that includes over 700 titles by writers that include Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Bill Clinton, John Le Carré, and Salman Rushdie, you can imagine how bustling the home must have been. Just think about all those wonderful conversations.

There was one author who never visited the Gottlieb home, Robert Caro. He also wanted to be interviewed separately for the film. But before you jump to conclusions, he is a charming and nice gentleman, as is Gottlieb. After viewing the documentary, you’ll understand the nature of their relationship. Both are private men, and it took Lizzie quite some time to get both men to agree to the documentary. There were several refusals before they said yes. Five years later, the film sees the light of day. On the amount of time it took to complete the doc, Caro had this to say, “Lizzie. It’s not about how long it takes to make. It’s about whether it will endure.”

Anyone who is an avid reader will enjoy the film. Behind every great book and author, there is a great editor. If it wasn’t for Gottlieb, the novel “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller would have been called “Catch-18.” Can you imagine being in a “catch-18” situation? Of course not. And as Gottlieb points out, “It isn’t as funny.” There was, however, a good reason for the title change.

During “Turn Every Page” you’ll learn about both these literary legends in a lighthearted and enjoyable manner. Plenty of anecdotes, observations, and candid footage are used to keep the viewer engaged along with short interviews by fans and those closest to the two men including Ethan Hawke, Bill Clinton, senior vice president at Knopf Doubleday Lisa Lucas, literary agent Lynn Nesbit, Conan O’Brien, and many more.

When I was in sixth grade, we took a field trip to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. I wasn’t old enough to comprehend the importance of the museum that houses over 45 million historical documents; such an excursion is better suited for high school. It is a Texas treasure that everyone in the state should visit at least once. When Caro begin writing about the 36th president of the United States, he felt he needed to be in Texas to research his subject. And so, he and his wife Ina moved to the Lone Star State for three years resulting in four LBJ books with a fifth one in the works. At 87, Caro is in a race against time to get it finished. Gottlieb is 91, so time is of the essence for both men to finish their life’s work, collaborating one last time.

If you’re not familiar with Robert Moses, you will learn a lot about the subject of “The Power Broker,” one of New York’s most powerful men. Being in Texas, you are more likely to know at least a little about Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the film, Caro and his wife return to the Hill Country to reflect on the time spent in Texas researching LBJ. From the president’s boyhood home in Johnson City, to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, they are my favorite scenes in the film.

Had” Turn Every Page” been released in 2022, the documentary would have made it into my Best Films of 2022 list. Lizzie Gottlieb’s relation to one of the documentary’s subjects proves crucial to the unprecedented access given to viewers into the lives of these two private men. Still, it wasn’t good enough to fully capture the two working together on that elusive fifth and final LBJ biography. The cameras rolled but at Caro’s request, the sound was turned off.

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.