Book Review: “Unscripted: The Epic Battle For A Media Empire And The Redstone Family Legacy” By James B. Stewart And Rachel Abrams (2023, 416 pages)
Four stories in one.
A former lawyer, James B. Stewart writes for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Rachel Abrams is a reporter for The New York Times. They have each won a Pulitzer Prize.
“Unscripted” tells four intertwined stories: Hollywood’s streaming angst, the strategic wanderings of Viacom and CBS, the intimate drama of the Redstone family, and the repercussions of the “MeeToo” movement in the entertainment industry. If the writers of the brilliant HBO series “Succession” had included some of the twists and turns of this story in their episodes, they would have been accused of exaggerating in implausibility. Yet, here, everything is sadly true.
The central character of this book is Sumner Redstone, one of the most successful American entrepreneurs of the last century: Starting from nothing, he managed to build one of the largest media empires and one of the largest fortunes of the country. He was known for his exceptional intelligence, which allowed him to graduate from Harvard University in two years instead of the four required of students. He also excelled in Japanese to such an extent that he joined the U.S. Army in 1943 to help decipher the secret codes of the Japanese enemy.
He was less appreciated for his harshness. In addition to his disrespect for anyone who didn’t meet his high standards, his brutality was magnified by a tragedy that nearly killed him. In 1979, the hotel where he was staying caught fire: Redstone escaped through a window and hung from a ledge, while his hand and forearm were consumed by flames, until the fire department arrived. He underwent sixty hours of surgery, but his hand remained forever a deformed claw that reminded everyone of the determination he was capable of.
At the end of his life, Sumner Redstone became acquainted with two women whose sole purpose was to steal as much of his fortune as possible. They lived with him at his Beverly Park estate, regulating his life to the point of forbidding family members to visit him.
Scenes depicting a Sumner Redstone frequently crying in his room, at the mercy of lawless manipulators threatening his staff members, humanize an individual known for his lifelong lack of humanity. It was after one of the greatest legal battles in American corporate history that Shari Redstone was able to reconnect with her father and retain control of the empire he had built. To do so, she also had to confront Leslie Moonves, the most iconic American television executive of his time, who was finally caught up in the sexual assaults he had committed with impunity.
This book reads like a novel thanks to a writing style that is both clear on complex legal issues and dynamic. It also benefits from a remarkable level of journalistic investigation.