Disneyland doesn’t have a ride simulating what it’s like to work for Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner. But if it did — at least judging from DisneyWar, a 534-page vivisection of Eisner’s conflict-ridden tenure — it might go like this: You step into a faux limo while an animatronic Eisner holds forth on Disney’s proud creative tradition. But as the vehicle takes off, other Disney execs try to derail you. An angry Eisner periodically reappears, admonishing you to do things faster, cheaper, better. Finally, you’re dumped at the exit in a burst of pink-slip confetti.
Imagine watching that ride go around, say, a dozen more times, and you’ve got the exhausting vibe of DisneyWar. While the epilogue asserts that ”nothing will erase” Eisner’s ”record of extraordinary achievement,” the book’s body relentlessly measures the human cost of that record in terms of the many talented people Eisner has driven from his kingdom — most prominently, former studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, short-lived company president Michael Ovitz, and Walt Disney’s nephew Roy. James B. Stewart, a Pulitzer-winning reporter who chronicled Wall Street corruption in Den of Thieves, writes that he embarked on the book in mid-2001 to explore ”how Disney shaped culture, or was shaped by it.” But in November 2003, when Roy Disney was forced to resign from the media giant’s board of directors and began an assault on Eisner’s management, Stewart shifted his focus from Disney’s impact on American culture to Eisner’s impact on Disney as he tried to save his job.
The outbreak of unbridled combat is both the making and the unmaking of DisneyWar. Stewart frames a year-by-year account of Eisner’s reign as a monotonous raft of portents, signaling that Eisner’s simmering dark side — his arrogance, suspiciousness, and flagrant ”dishonesty,” his ”most glaring defect” — will eventually undo him. Disgruntled witnesses are legion. By Stewart’s account, Katzenberg (who left in 1994 to form DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) told one Disney exec, ”Fundamentally, Michael doesn’t care about anybody else. Maybe his wife. All Michael cares about is Michael.” Sanford Litvack, another exec passed over for president, is quoted saying, ”I always felt like I wanted to be a member of Michael’s club. And then I discovered there wasn’t any club.”
Some of Stewart’s fly-on-the-wall access is extraordinary (he quotes Eisner repeatedly bad-mouthing ABC’s Lost — even after it’s a hit). Yet tenacious reporting can’t overcome a fatal narrative problem Eisner, while wounded, is still standing. (A search is on for a successor to Eisner, who has said he’ll step down as CEO in 2006 but who also tells Stewart he wouldn’t mind being reappointed chairman.) That ultimately makes DisneyWar a dead-end read. It’s like sitting through a massive trial, then being ushered out before the jury reaches a verdict.