Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Aron Milchan, by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, Geffen Books, 2011, 288 pages.
Arnon Milchan is best known in America today as a Hollywood producer. While he works independently of the seven major studios, Milchan has produced some of the biggest hit movies of the last thirty years including Fight Club, Pretty Woman and L.A. Confidential.
Arnon Milchan is a current Oscar nominee for best picture for the film 12 Years a Slave which he co-produced. The best picture Oscar is awarded to the producers of the winning movie.
He is currently part owner of Israel’s broadcast Channel 10. Milchan is listed by Forbes magazine as Israel’s 4th wealthiest man and the 308th wealthiest man in the world with an estimated fortune of $4.2 Billion.
Arnon Milchan was born in Rehovot, Israel in 1944. His father owned and operated the family’s fertilizer business. The family’s wealth allowed for the young Milchan to study in England. Arnon’s father, Dov, died unexpectedly in 1965 when Arnon was only 21 years old. Arnon took over the family business, Milchan Bros. Ltd. It was then that Arnon Milchan discovered that his father had already been involved in international arms dealing for the young State of Israel.
Until well after the Six Day War Israel was not able to obtain all of the weapons that it needed through direct purchases from countries like France and the United States. Indeed, the Americans would not become a significant provider of military aid to Israel until well into the 1970s. It was therefore necessary for Israel to procure arms from international dealers and middlemen. Also, even after it could obtain what it needed directly from the U.S., Israel chose to acquire some items covertly – such as anything tied to its nuclear program – so that there would be no official record of the purchases. Every item that Israel currently buys in the United States with the military aid that America gives it is a matter of public record.
Arnon Milchan’s first major move as a businessman was to develop a new fertilizer made from tree bark. Milchan had noticed that the lumber industry simply discarded the bark as an unnecessary by product. Milchan entered into a deal with the DuPont chemical company in America to recycle the bark. The process for transforming the bark into a fertilizer was performed in Israel and both Milchan and DuPont profited greatly from their partnership.
Arnon Milchan continued to develop new agricultural products through the 1960s and 70s which would make him very wealthy while also aiding the small and still new Israeli economy. It was also at this time, however, that he began his clandestine career.
I won’t go into all of the details of Arnon Milchan’s life; just the highlights. I’m reviewing a book here, not writing a biography.
As a young and wealthy man Anon Milchan lived like a playboy. He earned a lot of money and so he spent a lot of money. He romanced various exciting women and lived a life of luxury. He also made life long political connections in the Israeli establishment with politicians such as Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres.
According to Doron and Gelman, these connections preceded Arnon Milchan’s arms dealing. First Mr. Milchan cozied up to Dayan and Peres when the two men helped to form a new breakaway party from Israel’s ruling Labor Party in 1965. The two – Peres was the former Director General of Israel’s Defense Ministry and Dayan was the former IDF Chief of Staff – would be left out of government for a few years when the Rafi Party failed to join the new government, but still had connections and influence in Israel’s defense establishment. They saw something in the young Milchan that told them that he would be perfect for the task of clandestine international activities.
The main contribution that Milchan is said to have made to Israel was in his acquiring for it a device called a krytron, not to be confused with Superman’s home world. I will not bore you with the technical details that I do not fully understand myself. A krytron is a type of electrical tube that can carry many volts of electricity. It has mostly peaceful electronic purposes and looks like the tubes that old television sets used to have in them. But they can also be used in the development of nuclear weapons.
At the time when Milchan procured krytrons for Israel, American Law regulated their export because of their military capabilities. With the advent of new technologies, American policy long since changed and anyone can acquire a krytron today legally, but I doubt that the Iranians need any for their nuclear program.
Milchan was accused of getting rich from his arms deals for Israel. But Milchan maintains that the financial proceeds from his deals went to Israel and that he only received small fees. His wealth, he maintains, came from the success of his businesses.
Milchan is nothing if not a brilliant businessman and investor. He bought the failing sportswear company Puma and turned it around. He then sold his interest in the company for a profit of hundreds of millions of dollars. Milchan also bought the WTA — the women’s professional tennis association – when it was in financial jeopardy. He then promoted its new, young and sexy stars such as Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters. Television revenue for the WTA skyrocketed and Milchan again made a fortune.
Some successful businessmen use their money to realize boyhood fantasies and buy professional sports teams. Think Mark Cuban who bought the Dallas Mavericks and Paul Allen who bought the Seattle Seahawks. Arnon Milchan’s passion, however, was for film.
Arnon Milchan began his foray into films by investing in small independent movies in the 1970s which failed at the box office. His first major production was the made for television mini series Masada, about the true story of the last group of Jews who fought off the Romans from the mountain fortress in Israel. Masada starred famous actors such as peter O’Toole. It was a television and commercial success.
He then backed several of the best movies ever made; even though, they were financial failures. These were martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. (Trust me, if you haven’t seen these movies yet, you must!) Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about the production problems that surrounded Brazil and Once Upon a Time in America and how both Milchan and the directors feuded with the studios over the films’ content. An entire book could be written about these stories alone and, in fact, one has been written about Brazil.
One of Milchan’s first financial successes came with the movie Pretty Woman. Milchan bought the original screenplay for only $2,500 from a production company which had gone bankrupt. The original story was intended to be a gritty real life portrayal of a drug addicted prostitute. Milchan brought the project to Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the head of Disney, where it was “sanitized” into a Hollywood romantic comedy that fit Disney’s “family friendly” image.
Milchan takes much of the credit for the rewriting of the script, but so do the other people involved in its production. A lot has already been written about Pretty Woman. It is used as a case study on how Hollywood studios can raze the vision of an independent screen writer.
In 1991, a dispute over the creative control of his movies led Milchan to create New Regency Films, in partnership with Warner Bros Studios and the French Cable company Canal with $1 Billion in capitol, $300 million of which Milchan put up himself. New regency became the first movie company of its kind; more than a production company and less than as studio it makes movies in partnership with a studio. This became known as a “rent a studio” or “studio within a studio” where the movie makers would only pay the studios to distribute their films. This benefits both sides in that, the studio limits its financial obligations and the movie makers have more creative control.
Milchan has made his share of mistakes in the movie business. For example, he turned down the opportunity to buy the rights to the Harry Potter books for only $35,000 when the first book had yet to be published. We all know how that turned out.
Also, when production costs ballooned Milchan withdrew from the first Ice Age movie not believing that it would be a hit. It became a huge success with multiple sequels.
Two years before Milchan publicly acknowledged his past connections to Israel’s arms procurement, Authors Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman document Milchan’s double life in their book Confidential.
Is this a story about an Israeli businessman turned Hollywood producer who also happened to work clandestinely procuring weapons for Israel? Or a story about an Israeli businessman turned weapons dealer for Israel who ended up working as a Hollywood producer? The authors do not seem to know. The sections of the book devoted to these different parts of Mr. Milchan’s life do not appear to be connected.
Quite frankly they are not good writers. The book is riddled with run on sentences and, at times, is hard to read.
In reference to the time of Milchan’s birth during World War II:
“These were grim and uncertain days in human history, as Europe was in flames and many members of the newborn’s extended family would never be heard from again.”
About a romance of Milchan’s:
“Within hours all inhibitions were dropped and a passionate romance developed. (Ich!) In the following days he was completely consumed.”
On the mood in Israel before the Yom Kippur War:
“Terror and a sense of danger, death and destruction hung heavy.”
On Milchan himself:
“Milchan is an individualist, a lone hunter in many ways, but he has a weakness for grandiose displays of coordinated human activity, be it in war or in entertainment. He wants to be a part of it, but at a slight distance, on his own terms.”
I am still not sure what the above sentence is trying to say.
Doron and Gelman should also have consulted a historian when they wrote this book. It is riddled with factual errors about and misleading synopses of important historical events and people in Israel’s history. Hopefully, its readers will not take Confidential’s brief accounts of Israeli history at face value.
For some reason they call David Ben-Gurion’s short lived Rafi Party, “one of the strangest political parties in Israel’s history.”
What about the Yemenite Party, the Green Leaf, the Natural Law Party, the Pensioners, etc, etc? If you live in Israel then you will understand what I am talking about. Every time there is an election countless fringe parties run for the Knesset and under the law have a right to at least some free television time to air their commercials.
Ben-Gurion’s Rafi Party was just one of many examples of an Israeli “strong man” flexing his muscles in the mistaken belief that if he formed his own party he would win a major block of seats. Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Ezer Weizmann and others all tried this and came up with only one seat each in the Knesset.
Supposedly the party was established at a meeting in a Tel Aviv restaurant and that the then only 21 year old Milchan was central to its formulation. We are to believe that Moshe Dayan, who was a devoted follower of Ben-Gurion’s, only joined the new party after this “kid” talked him into it. For some reason the authors describe Rafi as a “Peres bandwagon,” in reference to the then obscure Shimon Peres. Peres had already joined the new party after having served as a member of the Knesset for six years with the then leading Labor Party, Mapai.
On the eve of the Six Day War a national unity government was formed. Moshe Dayan, then a member of the opposition, became the Defense Minister as the Rafi Party joined the coalition.
After the war the party remained in the coalition until it merged back into the Mapai Party when the new coalition Labor Alignment was formed. For some reason Doron and Gelman write that: “a few months after that [the Six Day War] all Rafi members returned to Mapai with their tails between their legs – with the exception of David Ben-Gurion who continued to wander in a political wilderness until the day he died in 1973.” I am sure that any biographer of Ben-Gurion’s would take issue with that description of the last years of his life.
In a section of photos, one from the movie The King of Comedy mistakenly cites the comedian Sandra Bernhard as Robert Deniro’s then wife.
They cite a fictitious scene from Steven Spielberg’s fictitious movie Munich – a movie based on a book by a man who was largely discredited as a fraud – to give the reader an example of how the Mossad operates.
They for some reason believe that the Arab forces halted their initial attacks in the Yom Kippur War after great initial successes because the Israeli government let it be known through the Americans that it would use nuclear weapons if the Arabs “proceeded beyond Israel’s red lines.” Actually the Egyptians had a very clear plan of attack intended to make Israel’s position in the Sinai untenable and force it to withdraw completely. Egypt never intended to have its army go all the way to Israel. So too, the Syrians may have only wanted to retake the Golan and stopped their army before reaching the Galilee.
Even their short description of the story of the movie Brazil is flawed. I do not want to give away the ending so just trust me on this one.
Ehud Olmert is mistakenly listed as Jerusalem Mayor when Pretty Woman was filmed. Pretty Woman came out in 1990. Ehud Olmert would not be elected mayor of Jerusalem until 1993.
It’s not so much that these small errors detract from the book. They do. Clearly the average reader would not even notice the mistakes. But if the authors could not be bothered to get the small details correct then why should anyone trust them when it comes to the major ones?
Also, why do they take Milchan’s claims at face value?
For some reason they give Milchan credit for not only getting Shimon Peres to join Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima Party, but also for getting him elected president of Israel.
At the end of 2005 Ariel Sharon knew that he would not be reelected leader of his Likud Party after he had chosen to enact a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip. So he formed the Kadima Party. Many leading members and cabinet ministers from the Likud Party immediately jumped ship with Sharon since the polls all showed Sharon’s new party easily winning the upcoming election in early 2006. In order to make Kadima seem to be more of a centrist party than a break away from the Likud Party, Sharon reached out to many members of the Labor Party to join him.
Three did, including Shimon Peres, future Knesset Speaker Dlaia Itsik and former cabinet minister Haim Ramon. I do not understand why Doron and Gelman think that Peres’ joining Sharon as was such a surprise. Peres had already served as the Foreign Minister under Sharon. When Sharon was first elected in a special by-election in 2001 he immediately called for the Labor Party to join in a national unity government and for Peres to be his foreign minister.
Peres resigned a few months before the next elections in 2003 only because the new Labor Party chairman, Amram Mitzna, withdrew the party from the coalition as a tactic before the elections. A few years later, after Mitzna was no longer party leader, Peres again joined Sharon’s government as a deputy prime minister when the Labor Party again joined the coalition.
Peres felt slighted when the much younger Amir Peretz was elected Labor Party Chairman before the 2006 general elections. Peres knew that he would be relegated to a back seat in the party under Peretz and that he would not again receive a senior cabinet post. Shimon Peres had every reason to join Ariel Sharon in the Kadima Party and it is doubtful that he needed much prodding from Milchan to do so.
Then there is the matter of Peres’ election as President of Israel in 2007. Then President Moshe Katsav resigned in disgrace after having been indicted on charges of sexual abuse. Everyone in the country expected Peres to be the next President. He was then serving as a cabinet minister in Ehud Olmert’s government and no one else was left who could challenge Peres.
There were two other candidates when the Knesset’s 120 members voted in a secret ballot and only the former speaker of the Knesset from the Likud, Ruby Rivlin, had any chance against Peres. When none of the candidates received the necessary majority of more than sixty votes in the first round of balloting a second round was called. But then both of the other two candidates withdrew and Peres won by default.
I do not doubt that people will exaggerate their own importance and can make grandiose claims about their involvement in historical events. The problem here is that the authors of Confidential made no effort to check Mr. Milchan’s claims or present contradictory positions. The election of Shimon Peres as President of Israel is so recent that their failure to challenge Mr. Milchan’s assertions is laughable.
In reference to a movie in production about the Battle of Hastings in 1066 the authors write: “the outcome of which would impact English history for almost a thousand years.” Well it has not yet been a thousand years since that battle and talk about an understatement. “Impact?” The battle completely transformed the entire future of England and affected all of world history ever since.
“Israel gained its modern nuclear deterrence capabilities because of the covert efforts of many people, but Milchan was the most essential.”
How do they know this? What about the individual scientists who worked on the projects and the people in the South African and French governments who were also essential to the program?
What of Ben-Gurion himself who pursued the program over objections from within his own government?
This book gives little or no case at all for supporting the claim that Milchan was so essential to Israel’s nuclear program or arms dealing in general. He seems to have simply been a middle man whose company was used as a front for Mossad operations. For a real history of Israel’s nuclear development you should read Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option.
The poor writing, false assumptions and grandiose unsubstantiated claims of Confidential can best be expressed in the book’s final line:
“If one could imagine a single, indispensible 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 the heavyweight Hollywood producer, who spends his life seamlessly moving between the worlds of fame and secrecy, fantasy and reality, war and peace.’
Where should I begin? As far as Israel’s “secret wars” the book makes no claim of Milchan having been involved in anything more than weapons procurement.
How could Milchan possibly “know where all the bodies are buried?” Did he have anything to do with targeted assassinations of terrorists over the years? Or with the Mossad’s well documented activities hunting down and assassinating wanted Nazi War criminals in the 1950’s and 60s?
Yes Arnon Milchan’s life story lends itself to the story for a great movie. Yes Arnon Milchan is a fascinating person. Maybe he will produce a movie about himself some day.
There are many great books about exciting people like Arnon Milchan.
There are also many great books that have been written based on the true stories of Israel’s nuclear program and its spy agency the Mossad.
Confidential is not one of them.
For more on Arnon Milchan’s films go to his page at IMDB:
Form more books from Gefen Publishing House: