James B. Stewart: Disney War

James B. Stewart: Disney War

At one point in James B. Stewart's explosive new muckraking bestseller Disney War, Disney CEO Michael Eisner says his son feels that Eisner is "living out a Shakespearean play." Eisner and son seem to see that play as Othello, with Eisner's right-hand man (and future Dreamworks SKG bigwig) Jeffrey Katzenberg unflatteringly cast in the role of Iago, a scheming, sinister upstart intent on destroying his master from within while outwardly expressing unwavering support and loyalty. Instead, Stewart suggests in his epilogue, Eisner was unconsciously following the path of King Lear, a tragic monarch who'd rather go down in flames than acknowledge his professional mortality.

The title of Stewart's scathing attack on Eisner at first seems inaccurate, or at least misleading, since Disney War focuses not on one epic skirmish, but three: Eisner vs. Katzenberg, Eisner vs. Michael Ovitz, his best-friend-turned-partner-turned-foe, and finally, Eisner vs. Roy Disney, Walt's soft-spoken but surprisingly resilient nephew, who helped instigate a shareholder revolt against Disney's embattled head honcho.

Eisner recently agreed to step down as Disney CEO a year before his contract expires, in an ignoble ending for a tenure that began so auspiciously. By all accounts, the first 10 years of Eisner's career at Disney constituted a period of historic, perhaps unprecedented, creative and financial success. When Eisner arrived, Disney was a sleepy ghost town of a company. Under his leadership, Disney underwent a remarkable renaissance, producing an impressive string of hits like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast, and The Lion King. The live-action and theme-park units similarly rebounded, but as Eisner entered his second decade as Disney's chief, a series of failures, personal feuds, and bad decisions scraped the luster off one of America's top executives.

Disney War is a show-business story heavy on business and light on show. Stewart adopts a lean, economical, just-the-facts, hard-news approach that perfectly suits the material's innate drama. As the lies, duplicity, and backstabbing pile up, the book evolves into a twisted sort of Business Noir, a harrowing, compulsively readable look at the underbelly of a corporation that has become synonymous with America. Stewart has lucked upon a subject so absurdly packed with conflict and intrigue that plotlines which could easily warrant their own books (Eisner's relationship with Miramax, for instance) barely figure into the overstuffed narrative. Eisner liked to think of himself as Walt Disney's professional heir, a belief no doubt strengthened when he took over Walt's gig as host of The Wonderful World Of Disney. Thanks to Disney War, he'll have to settle for being one of Disney's most complex and fascinating villains: the Cruella De Vil of the boardroom, or Jafar with a fortune in stock options.

More Book Review