From the opening sounds of a typewriter clacking, Turn Every Page (2022) hints at its muses: a legendary writer-editor duo whose decades-long working relationship produced multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning political biographies. With her latest documentary, director Lizzie Gottlieb chronicles the working relationship between the literary legends Robert Gottlieb—her father—and Robert Caro, providing a beautiful image of the two men’s lives but often leaving out detrimental details of their relationship.
Unlike the initial typing sound, this documentary is far from monotonous; and unlike the typewriter itself, it’s not a relic of the past. Instead, Turn Every Page juxtaposes Caro and Gottlieb’s antiquated eccentricities with the uniformity that comes with modernization. (Caro literally throws a copy of everything he’s written into an unorganized, unshelved cabinet, while Gottlieb has dozens of vintage vinyl purses above his bed.) As our lives become further digitally integrated, Caro and Gottlieb embrace an increasingly outdated tradition with their paper-and-pen editing process. By constructing an ever-changing world around Caro and Gottlieb—both of whom are trying to build a legacy with the time they have left—Lizzie Gottlieb skillfully draws the audience into the complex life and legacy of the two men, individually.
The film first introduces Caro, a highly decorated author whose success precedes him. Caro won the Pulitzer twice: first for The Power Broker (1974), a biography about New York city planner Robert Moses, and again for Master of the Senate (2002), the third volume of his Lyndon B. Johnson biographies. One of the film’s early interviewees notes that having The Power Broker on your bookshelf signals intelligence to political and economic professionals because you’ve read—or at least recognize the significance of—Caro’s exposé on power and greed in New York City. Clips of Caro receiving high praise from former President Barack Obama, and political activists who consider The Power Broker one of the most influential books of our generation, establish his massive cult following.
Lizzie Gottlieb replicates this blueprint to introduce her father. She places the audience in a run-of-the-mill bookstore with Gottlieb and his grandson, who peruses the shelves, picking up books and examining their covers. As he grazes a familiar title, Gottlieb cannot help but interject: “I edited that one.”
The phrase is repeated as the camera pans over to generation-defining novels. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Bill Clinton’s autobiography. Gottlieb edited all of these and more.
Caro’s well-known success is reinforced by his high praise among figures, but the vast array of notable contemporary books (including Caro’s) that Gottlieb worked on hallows his status as an editing legend. Caro is the genius behind the pencil, while Gottlieb wields the power of the eraser; neither can survive without the other. In tandem, their genius is limitless.
As the audience comes to know Gottlieb and Caro as the duo responsible for some of the most influential books of our generation, they become larger than life, unstoppable in their partnership. But before we can get too carried away, Turn Every Page brings us down to Earth, humanizing these two men.
Lizzie Gottlieb couples the testimonies of both men with photos of their younger selves, which creates a vivid connection between the audience and the duo. It’s one thing to hear how Caro fled to Central Park to escape his tumultuous relationship with his father, but it is a completely different experience to see images of a young Caro, feet dangling off a park bench as he reads in peaceful silence, escaping the difficult home life he explains half a century later. The windows into their respective pasts take them off their literary pedestal and remind us that they’re just two boys from New York City.
While Lizzie Gottlieb showcases her artistic talent through this emotional journey of their respective lives, legacy, and love, she unfortunately only paints Gottlieb and Caro’s relationship with one shade. She creates a beautiful and emotional portrait of the two men separately, but the dynamics of their partnership lack the same depth and intensity, which do not live up to the precedent of her previous artistry. The film talks greatly about how the editing of the first volume of the Johnson biography was a “tremendous battle, an angry, angry, battle,” but the audience hears little about the details of these tense moments, leaving them in the dark about the lasting impacts of these disagreements on Caro and Gottlieb’s relationship. By the end of the film, Caro and Gottlieb are portrayed as enigmatic and dynamic people, but as a duo, they are only painted in one dimension.
Caro and Gottlieb’s apprehension to a documentary about their editing process limited the director’s artistic ability; they say their process is “sort of [a] private thing.” There is ultimately a piece missing from their depicted relationship. Lizzie Gottlieb illustrates their partnership through rose-colored glasses, while the audience had previously seen the men’s individual stories in vivid technicolor. The switch from their incredibly detailed private lives to the vagueness of their working relationship leaves much to be desired. The audience is told that their biggest fight was simply about a semicolon, without any further exploration of the stubbornness and pride in their work that led to an argument about a semicolon in the first place.
However, as Lizzie Gottlieb narrows back in on the individuals, she beautifully articulates Caro and Gottlieb’s shared fear of their mortality and loss of legacy. Both men, 87 and 91 years old respectively, are acutely aware that they are nearing the end of their lives. With their final volume of Johnson’s biography still in the works, both Caro and Gottlieb are anxious about the end product. Not only does this project represent the end of Caro and Gottlieb’s working relationship, but as their final book together, it also has the potential to define their legacy.
The moment when Caro and Gottlieb express their fears about finishing this final book together before either one passes away is heartbreaking, and the emotional punch hits especially hard after we have journeyed through their lives. Here is where Lizzie Gottlieb truly shines as an artist: She beautifully splices the personal, yet mundane, clips of Caro and Gottlieb’s lives overtop their own testimony. Turn Every Page often keeps Caro and Gottlieb’s relationship vague, but as we hear Caro and Gottlieb express their fear of mortality, we see them step down from their pedestal and be wholly human.