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Confidential - A Review

The Life of Secret Agent turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon MichanGefen Books. ISBN: 978-061-543-3813. Hardcover. 320 pages.Authors: Joseph Gelman & Meir Doron

Throughout the 1970s, sometimes known as "the decade that taste forgot", American television was blighted by a plague of programs produced by a fellow named Chuck Barris. The medium that Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow had already called "a vast wasteland" sunk to new lows with an onslaught of Barris-produced shows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, Three's a Crowd, The $1.98 Beauty Show, The Chuck Barris Rah-Rah Show and, indisputably the worst of the worst, The Gong Show. At the height of his popularity, Barris—or "Chucky baby" as he liked to be called—had several of these shows running at the same time. Some of these were on one or another of the three major television networks, while others were in syndication and being broadcast as often as two or three times a day. Mercifully, however, all things pass, and so did the TV empire of Chuck Barris.

But just when we thought it was safe to turn on our TV sets again, we were assaulted by a fascinating revelation. It seemed that not only was Barris the creator and producer of a multitude of schlock TV shows, he was also a secret agent. In his 1984 tell-all autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris claimed that during all the time he was afflicting America with TV programs like The Gong Show, he was also a CIA assassin. Barris described in lengthy detail how he traveled the world for the CIA, blowing people's brains out, and getting back to Hollywood just in time to host another segment of one of his many shows.

Was this true? Few people thought so at the time, and virtually no one talks much about Chuck Barris now. What brings him to mind at the moment is the recent publication of a book about famed Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan—the Israeli movie mogul responsible for such blockbusters as Pretty Woman, Free Willy, King of Comedy, Brazil, Once Upon a Time in America, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Six Degrees of Separation—who is also an Israeli secret agent. That's right, the man whose movies have featured a veritable who's who of Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts, Michael Douglas, Steven Segal, Robert DiNiro, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, has also been the prime mover of numerous dangerous secret arms procurement operations critical to Israel's survival.

In Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan, authors Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman declare, "When legendary media mogul Sumner Redstone told us that he considers Milchan to be 'Mr. Israel,' he had little idea how accurate his sentiments really are. If one could imagine a single, indispensable person in the middle who knows where all the bodies are buried when it comes to Israel's secret wars, it would be none other than this heavy Hollywood producer, who spends his life seamlessly moving between the worlds of fame and secrecy, fantasy and reality, war and peace." The book, which clearly portrays Milchan as a heroic figure, was written without Milchan's authorization or cooperation.

Narrating the life of this real-life James Bond, the authors document in minute detail Milchan's 1960s recruitment by Shimon Peres into a top secret intelligence unit called LAKAM, charged with the procurement of any and all relevant science, technology and physical materials needed for Israel's covert nuclear weapons program. We read of Milchan's adventures, marvel at what he was able to accomplish, and vicariously enjoy his lavish globetrotting lifestyle.

Doron and Gelman then proceed to take us on the wild ride of Milchan's assault on the movie industry, where we see the backstage wheeling, dealing, ego-stroking and money-spending behind the glitz and glamour of movie making. We see stars like Robert DiNiro as we have never seen them before, and we smile at the crazy stories about how some of our favorite films were made.

The authors are compulsive about documenting their research and about being thorough in their narrative, at times to a fault. They make us wade through every twist, turn and detour in their recounting of Milchan's arms purchases. No detail seems too small to escape their attention or be omitted from their story—every mail drop, shipping problem, contract, dummy corporation, offshore bank account, phone call and fax is presented to the reader as evidence of Milchan's career in Israeli intelligence. Similarly, throughout the sections on Milchan's career as a movie producer, we sit bemusedly through every meeting, attend every power lunch, eavesdrop on every phone call and listen in on every conversation between Milchan and his directors, screenwriters and stars.

Despite the over-documentation, the authors write in a punchy, engaging style and offer up many surprises. We learn that the title for the movie Pretty Woman was the idea of then Jerusalem Mayor and future Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and that the movie was Yasser Arafat's all-time favorite film. We discover that it was none other than 'Milchan the Matchmaker' who first introduced Angelina Jolie to Brad Pitt, Jennifer Garner to Ben Affleck, and Whoopie Goldberg to Ted Danson. We are told that when Milchan introduced Barbara Streisand to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Shamir had no idea who she was. When Milchan told him that Streisand was a singer and actress, Shamir responded, "And with this she can make a living?" The authors also detail the kingmaker role that Milchan played in making Shimon Peres president after the downfall of Moshe Katsav.

Although interesting and well-written, the book could have used better editing. Not only would the narrative have been tighter, more chronology-driven and less jumpy, we would have been spared clichés like "the phone was ringing off the hook" and "Arnon fell for her head over heels," as well as grammatical errors like "each went to their own office".

But these are mere quibbles. Readers interested in the gritty minutiae of intelligence and counterintelligence will be fascinated by Milchan's exploits and vicariously proud of his achievements. Show business junkies, like myself, will be amazed at how many of their favorite movies of the past few years came into being largely as a result of Milchan's prodigious efforts. Above all, Confidential is a really good read.

Is all of it true?

What is truth? 

 

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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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