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‘Turn Every Page’ revels in the joy of working with words

The documentary double portrait of writer Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb bristles with ego and good-humored tension

Robert Caro, left, and Robert Gottlieb are the subjects of the documentary “Turn Every Page.” (Claudia Raschke/Wild Surmise Productions LLC/Sony Pictures Classics)
(3 stars)

The title of “Turn Every Page” refers to advice that Robert Caro received from an editor at Newsday, where Caro had just been named an investigative reporter in the 1960s. Go through every piece of paper, his mentor told him, and take nothing for granted. Panning for reportorial gold is a matter of diligence, not luck.

Caro took those words to heart and has continued to do so for the past 60 years, during which time he wrote “The Power Broker,” his masterful biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, and a three-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson that has turned into a five-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. In “Turn Every Page,” filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb chronicles the relationship between Caro and his longtime editor, her father Robert Gottlieb, as they approach finishing that fifth volume, as time and age and mortality loom threateningly on the horizon.

“Loom” is one of Caro’s favorite words, it turns out. And he has a thing for semicolons, punctuation that comes in for Talmudic analysis in a film that not only illuminates one of the most important and productive collaborations in American publishing, but revels in the sheer joy of working with words, in all their poetry, expressivity and recalcitrance.

What makes “Turn Every Page” so lively is that its subjects aren’t particularly warm-and-fuzzy friends: Their one condition for being filmed is that they won’t be interviewed together, which turns out to be a blessing. Rather than a self-indulgent portrait of two amazing men and their amazing careers, “Turn Every Page” bristles with ego and good-humored tension. Both Caro and Gottlieb were sons of difficult fathers, a fact that Lizzie allows viewers to make of what they will; she interviews both their wives — the actress Maria Tucci and Ina Caro, who researches all her husband’s books — as well as such friends and colleagues as Bill Clinton, literary agent Lynn Nesbit and New Yorker editor David Remnick.

What emerges from their testimony is a humane, often funny image of two men whose respective vocations have dovetailed seamlessly to create one of the greatest pieces of nonfiction writing of the 20th and, now, 21st centuries. (The lyrical tone of the film is held gracefully aloft by Clare and Olivier Manchon’s lilting musical score.) But it’s the movie’s two occasionally prickly protagonists who are the film’s indisputable stars. Gottlieb, 91, describes editing as “an intelligent and sympathetic reaction to the text, and what the author is trying to accomplish,” while Caro, 87, revisits the Texas Hill Country where he and Ina moved to research “The Path to Power,” recalling in gripping detail how he elicited personal memories from Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson. For all of his prodigious research, Caro cares most deeply about the prose, which he polishes and repolishes first in longhand, then on a Smith Corona electric typewriter in his monastic office. For both men, it’s the music of the words — the rhythm, movement and sense of place — that matters as much as their meaning.

The final act of “Turn Every Page” is both poignant and absurd, centering on the search for a pencil in the sleek offices of Alfred A. Knopf — as eloquent a demonstration as any that Gottlieb and Caro, and their exacting, expansive project, are on their way to becoming relics of a vanished age. Regardless of changes in publishing and technology, though, they also personify an enduring truth about any endeavor worth pursuing: that genius lies in the endless capacity for taking pains.

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains some strong language, brief war images and smoking. 112 minutes.