Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. From hopelies.com.
  • Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman. Confidental: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan. Gefen Books, August 2011.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Analytic Red Cell Unit employs thriller novelists to envision terrorism scenarios: Brad Meltzer and Brad Thor and writers not named Brad receive assignments like, “Think of a way to blow up the Super Bowl.” When I first heard about this unit a few years ago, I started going to parties, drinking too much, and telling everyone I’d been recruited to Red Cell 2: We were a group of literary novelists, tasked with envisioning the terror scenarios the thriller novelists were envisioning before they envisioned them. This was in the event that any of the thrillerists went rogue. (Soon I was hinting at the existence of a Red Cell 3, assembled to predict our predictions of predictions. It was staffed entirely by poets in Brooklyn.)

It’s depressing that the days of litterateurs working as intelligence officers—the days of Greene and Buchan, Fleming and le Carré—are largely over. Why would Ahmadinejad want to klatsch with Philip Roth? What would Kim Jong-il have to say to Jonathan Franzen? If there’s any arts bureau today with the cachet to access world leaders, it’s Hollywood: America’s greatest asset—in every respect—is Brangelina.

If you’re a reviewer, once in a while you’re sent a book in the mail so chintzily produced by a publishing house too busy to edit that you wonder how it is that its sensationalist claims aren’t better known. This was certainly the case with the full-color illustrated, under-proofed Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan. Written by two journalists, Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, with Milchan’s cooperation, it tells the story of how one of the world’s most successful movie producers spent decades spying for Israel, and still had time to introduce Angelina to Brad (that Brad).

Born in Rehevot in 1944, Milchan is an eleventh-generation Israeli. Yasser Arafat reportedly told him, “You’re more Palestinian than me.” His “ancestors on one side can be traced back to the great medieval biblical commentator Rashi, and on the other side almost to King David.” This of course would make Milchan “almost” related to Jesus, which would make him—“almost”—related to God. After his compulsory military service, Milchan assumed control of his late father’s farming concerns and conceived of a spray fertilizer synthesized from tree bark that revolutionized Israeli citrus. (“It has been said that since Milchan got involved in the fertilizer business, oranges have never tasted the same.”) His mid-twenties found him indulging an interest in cinema—he wanted to direct—and beginning to follow his father’s shadow career as an intelligence op. (Milchan père stockpiled weapons for the Haganah.) Milchan’s own requisition work was too risky even for Mossad, and so his assignment to Mossad’s Mossad, known as Lekem (h’LEshka l’KEshrei Mada, “Bureau of Scientific Relations”)—a clandestine organization founded to do what Mossad couldn’t: spy on America and achieve military capabilities that would meet with Washington’s disapproval. (Lekem was disbanded, or merely reorganized, after the arrest of Jonathan Pollard in 1985.)

Milchan negotiated Israel’s legal acquisition of American Huey helicopters and HAWK missiles, while his agricultural companies purchased and controlled apartheid-friendly African media—including the magazines West AfricaAfrican Development, and EurAfrique—in exchange for Israel receiving South African defense contracts and access to uranium. Milchan’s involvement in obtaining the materials that enabled the Jewish state’s nuclearization became public only in 1983, when an American business partner, Richard Kelly Smyth, failed to file a routine export form for a device called a krytron, which along with its many anodyne industrial applications—triggering photocopy flashbulbs and lasers—can also be used to detonate nuclear weapons. Smyth spent years as a fugitive evading munitions export charges before returning to the US to serve a reduced sentence and live in a California trailer park a few miles from a vineyard Milchan currently owns. Milchan was never charged.

The filmic possibilities of the krytron deal are real and have actually been realized: Roman Polanski paid tribute to his friend Milchan in the 1988 film Frantic, featuring Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Walker, an American surgeon visiting Paris. Walker’s wife Sondra, played by Betty Buckley, ends up switching suitcases with a smuggler at Charles de Gaulle airport. In that suitcase, secreted inside a souvenir replica of the Statue of Liberty, is a single krytron. Don’t doubt that Arab terrorists kidnap Walker’s wife and demand back their property.

Here’s an old/new curse, half Mossad, half Yiddish: “May you read about yourself in the newspaper.” At the same time Milchan made headlines for espionage, he also made his first billion (of $4 billion) from the movies he produced. He helped midwife Terry Gilliam’s Brazil through a massive budget/content battle with its studio, Universal. His other films include The War of the Roses (Shimon Peres recommended Warren Adler’s novel to Milchan) and Pretty Woman, which was originally called Three Thousand (as in the $3,000 Richard Gere’s businessman pays the prostitute played by Julia Roberts). Milchan screened the film for Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem and visiting Los Angeles. Olmert liked the Roy Orbison song on the soundtrack and suggested transposing its title. “How can you call a movie Pretty Woman?” Milchan asked. “Do me a favor,” Olmert answered. “Try it.”

Between Milchan’s numerous hits and few flops, there were full casts and crews of wives and mistresses (Milchan seems to have had a fetish for women from Gothenburg, Sweden) and a stint as a procurer of black models as companions for Robert De Niro. The best scene in Confidential concerns the best scene in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, another Milchan production. Milchan was cast as the driver of the limousine in which De Niro’s Noodles rapes Elizabeth McGovern’s Deborah. McGovern was dating Milchan at the time. Method actor De Niro required thirteen takes of method rape, and in a final insult, Leone was so dissatisfied with Milchan’s delivery of his one line that he had it dubbed by another actor.

Just as Milchan’s movies have declined—Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, Mr. and Mrs. Smith—so too has his intel utility. At 66, Milchan is too involved with his production company, New Regency (which he ran with the backing of a partnership he brokered between former rivals Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch), and maintaining his $600,000,000 art collection, dispersed among residences on three continents. He owns Picassos, Bacons, Basquiats, and a rare remontant landscape by Schiele.

Confidential rolls the full index of its subject’s screen credits only after an obvious Hollywood Ending, replete with faux sagacity and marital pieties (Milchan’s current wife is a South African former pro tennis player twenty five years his junior)—ultimately leaving the reader with the sense that America’s movie industry might be just as dangerous as any nation’s nuclear arsenal. Though (again) I can’t speak to the veracity of the authors’ claims—ask Shimon Peres, or Lekem head Rafi Eitan—I can say that if their espionage research is as reliable as their film erudition it might be better to consider this nonfiction book nothing more than a fictionalized treatment, a “based on a true story” pitch (perhaps for the Milchan biopic Oliver Stone considered making, provisionally titled Uzi Falafel).1

Mistaking the great Sandra Bernhard, star of the Scorsese-directed, Milchan-produced The King of Comedy, for De Niro’s first wife, Diahnne Abbott, should be prosecutable at The Hague.

  1. Milchan’s career has already been fictionalized in a series of novels written by his krytron source R. K. Smyth under the name Dr. Jon Schiller; Smyth was in hiding in Europe at the time. In these books, self-published and amateurishly written, the Smyth character, Dr Bradford Kelly, gets revenge on the Israeli establishment that abandoned him by killing the Milchan character, Amnon Milchbucher. 

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