Taghi Amirani’s deeply researched documentary focuses on the crucial 1953 Anglo-American-engineered regime change in Iran.
Arguably one of the most consequential but little-discussed foreign policy decisions of the post-World War II era is enthrallingly dissected in Coup 53. People under 40 or so generally know something about Vietnam, the crumbling of the Soviet Union and European communism and the fallout from 9/11, but no doubt only a few have a clue about the British-American removal of the democratically elected president of Iran in 1953, his replacement by the Shah and the long fuse leading from this to the installation of a fundamentalist Islamic regime there in 1978-79. Taghi Amirani’s passionate and fearless work, which enormously benefits from the involvement of the peerless film editor Walter Murch, has the air of something that grew from an impudent home movie into a magnum opus, one bearing mysterious strands that demand further investigation even after Amirani’s decade of research.
Obsessive and yet bracingly clear-minded, albeit anything but tidy, the film will enthrall documentary and history geeks. After a run through festivals, this dense and idiosyncratic work should and must find homes on docu-friendly channels worldwide.
The simple but disturbing history here is that, in the summer of 1953, fellow WWII victors Prime Minister Winston Churchill and new U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed to a secret plot to oust the recently elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh; the latter, ironically, had been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1951 for banishing the foreign oil companies and, as Britain feared, positioning Iran to become another India.
The impetus for the pushback came from Churchill, as his nation’s economy was in great post-war distress and could well use the restoration of the vast sums of oil profits it long raked in as the dominant partner in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company since the Brits discovered oil in the nation in 1908.
The previous American president, Harry Truman, had been adamantly opposed to getting mixed up in Iranian affairs. However, Eisenhower, and the even more eager anti-communists Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, feared that the Iranians might cozy up to the red camp. In 1953, Kermit Roosevelt Jr., Teddy’s grandson, played a leading role in guiding the revolt that toppled Mosaddegh, who was sent into lifelong house arrest while the new shah was installed as the head of government. The all-in cost of the U.S. effort to overthrow the old government: $60,000.
Necessary background as this may be, what’s driving Amirani here is both more personal and elusive. The filmmaker executes a series of creative backflips in his attempt to “turn a dark chapter in history inside out”: his own family’s escape from Iran to England when he was 15; the laborious perusal of countless boxes of papers and interviews in the cause of finding documents proving U.S. participation in the coup; and combing through the endless unedited interviews conducted for a comprehensive 1985 British television series, End of Empire. Mysteriously missing from the batch was the full original interview with an MI6 secret agent, Norman Darbyshire, any traces of which had been mysteriously cut from the show.
However, when the full-length transcript ultimately turned up, Amirani had the inspiration to engage no less than Ralph Fiennes to go on camera to deliver highlights from the late Darbyshire’s commentary, leading to several jaw-dropping revelations. Hanging over every moment of this is the mystery of why Darbyshire was made to disappear.
As he restlessly pursues his quest of charting the unfortunate events that precipitated the fall of Mosaddegh and the restoration of the shah, Amirani behaves like a compulsively solicitous host, paying deference to the viewer while pushing ever-onward in search of increasingly big game, such as the role of the communist party in his country,
The film both ranges far and digs deep, investigating the U.S.’ appetite for regime change, speculating about what the Middle East would be like if Iran had been left free to give democracy a chance and suggesting the way in which the ease and low cost of the operation gave unwarranted encouragement to later regime change efforts that proved rather less successful and far more costly.
Amirani and Murch make splendid use of almost entirely unfamiliar film footage dating back to the earliest days of newsreels to reveal how Iran looked a century ago and the enormity of the oil drilling operations. It also captures the relevant personalities, how they looked and dressed and carried themselves at a time when royalty and standing counted for a great deal. You can still hear the confidence and assumed privilege in the voices of some of the older British diplomats and functionaries.
The centrality in world affairs that Iran has achieved over the past half-century almost automatically bestows Coup 53 with special interest that is greatly augmented by the driven, eccentric and historical hyper-obsessiveness Amirani brings to the project. If the actual interviews with Norman Darbyshire ever turn up (if they still exist, one feels confident Amirani will one day find them), there will certainly be a sequel or more material added to this film.