Producers: Joanne Nerenberg, Jen Small and Lizzie Gottlieb Director: Lizzie Gottlieb   Cast: Robert Caro, Robert Gottlieb, Lynn Nesbit, Ina Caro, Maria Tucci, Lisa Lucas, Daniel Mendelsohn, William J. Clinton, Conan O’Brien, Ethan Hawke, David Remnick, Eric Silver, Dana Rubenstein and Oliver Young   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B

A documentary focused on book publishing hardly promises to be exciting, and Lizzie Gottlieb’s certainly isn’t in any conventional sense, despite the word “adventures” in the subtitle: after all, one of Caro and Gottlieb’s most action-packed joint efforts involves tracking down a number-two pencil in an office where computers and software programs rule.  But “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” is a fascinating, even touching dual biography of two men whose common love of precision and mutual personal respect have kept them working together for half a century.

The title comes from an injunction that Caro, the author of a monumental biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses and a magisterial multi-volume one of Lyndon Baines Johnson, received from an editor in his early days as an investigative journalist: to go over every bit of evidence he finds meticulously, overlooking nothing.  It’s advice he’s followed assiduously ever since; director Gottlieb (the daughter of Robert) shows him going to extraordinary lengths to unearth as much information and he can on his subjects and include as much of it as he can in his drafts, which run to thousands of pages.  Such fanatical dedication is not really rare among academics, but Caro is essentially a popular historian, and his devotion has made him an icon in that profession.

But the insistence on turning every page applies no less to Robert Gottlieb, who as editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf accepted Caro’s “The Power Broker” for publication in 1970 and proceeded to work with the author to whittle down the enormous amount of material Caro had assembled on Moses over the course of nearly a decade to fit into one very large volume.  To their joint surprise the book was an enormous success, leading Caro to embark on an even larger project, the biography of LBJ.  Originally envisioned as a trilogy, it now has reached four completed volumes, and the documentary follows Caro as he works on the fifth, and final, one.  Along with Caro’s wife Ina, who acts as his research assistant (she even moved with him to the Texas Hill Country for several years so that he could come to know the place from which Johnson emerged) Gottlieb has been the partner in his efforts, even during the five years he spent as editor of The New Yorker.  As the film shows, his work on the books he has edited—including Caro’s, but also those of many other illustrious authors—is as meticulous as Caro’s research and writing routine.

A good deal of the film consists of interviews with the two men, who discuss their philosophies and their work habits with candor and no little humor.  Lizzie Gottlieb also offers footage of them at work, whether it be Caro haunting the Johnson archives at the University of Texas or Gottlieb interacting with his colleagues at Knopf.  And there are excerpts from interviews with others—including Bill Clinton, whose books Gottlieb also edited, and Conan O’Brien, a huge fan of Caro who enticed the author to appear as a guest on his TV program.  She succeeded in filming something both men long resisted, a session in which they sit down side-by-side (with number-two pencils in hand) to go over Caro’s draft page by page.  But she was not permitted to record their conversation, though in interviews both men describe arguments over excisions and even punctuation (does Caro employ an excess of semicolons?). 

The result is a loving tribute to the arts of research, writing and editing in which we are allowed to watch, and to appreciate, the enthusiasm with which two elderly masters collaborate to produce what are—no need to fudge the issue—acknowledged masterpieces.  At a time when publishing is given over more and more to quickly, and often sloppily, manufactured fodder for declining public tastes, the film is not only enlightening but uplifting in its tribute to old-fashioned excellence.

“Turn Every Page” is certainly not startling in terms of cinematic technique.  Matt Hupfel’s cinematography, the editing by Molly Bernstein and Kristen Nutile, and the accompanying score by Olivier and Clare Manchon are workmanlike rather than innovative.  But the traditional approach fits the subject, and the subject is one very much worth exploring.