Review: Coup 53 (2019)

Photo credit: Amirani Media

A gripping real-life spy thriller full of treachery and intrigue, Coup 53 revisits the shadowy plot that deposed Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh in August 1953. This regime-change operation was masterminded and funded by American and British intelligence, ostensibly as part of the Cold War struggle against the global creep of communism, but in truth it was mainly engineered to reclaim long-standing British oil assets that Mosaddegh had nationalised in 1951. Colonialist profiteering disguised as pro-democracy realpolitik.

In gestation for almost a decade, Coup 53 is clearly a personal passion project for British-Iranian director Taghi  Amirani, whose own family history was shaped by Mosaddegh’s overthrow. Mixing archive footage with new interviews and short animated flashbacks, this small-scale documentary was clearly made on a modest budget, but the well-connected Amirani smartly brings in some famous collaborators including Ralph Fiennes and the legendary Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient). Shedding new light on an old trauma whose aftershocks still rock the modern Middle East, Coup 53 premiered at Telluride last year and is still touring film festivals. It is currently available online in the US, Britain and Ireland.

In investigating the coup of 1953, Amirani scores two minor coups of his own. His first is unearthing long-buried interview transcripts from the British TV series End of Empire, originally broadcast in 1985, which initially featured shadowy MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire boasting about his key role in deposing Mosaddegh. Darbyshire’s testimony was mysteriously cut from the programme’s final edit, presumably under pressure from his former government bosses, but Amirani forensically sifts through the type-written interview text to extract his missing quotes. The director’s second coup is casting Fiennes to effectively impersonate Darbyshire, dramatising his interview quotes with louche relish, as if playing some disreputable cousin of his James Bond spymaster role.

Photo credit: Amirani Media

Coup 53 tells a rich and engrossing story, but the opening act is slow and underpowered. Evidently impressed with himself for tracking down the lost Darbyshire interview, Amirani spends too long laying out his meticulous detective work instead of immersing viewers in the wider drama that shook Iran 70 years ago. He also oversells Darbyshire’s archive confessions as shocking new revelations when the British spy’s role in toppling Mosaddegh has actually been public knowledge for decades, even if the detail was often fuzzy. In 2013, even the CIA officially acknowledged its role in the coup.

Thankfully, after this plodding prelude, Coup 53 improves considerably. Amirani sketches out Britain’s long history of racist, imperialist involvement in Iran, with Winston Churchill cast as a key villain. He also paints an engaging portrait of Mosaddegh, a progressive but eccentric figure in the Gandhi mould who often wore pyjamas all day. Darbyshire emerges as an unscrupulous but skilled con man, persuading a reluctant CIA to back the coup by reframing an essentially colonialist battle for oil as a more politically urgent Cold War conflict, cynically exaggerating the shaky bond between Mosaddegh and Iran’s growing Communist party Tudeh. Using bribery, hired street mobs, kidnap, torture and even murder, the western powers and their local agents finally succeed in toppling the Tehran government, installing General Fazlollah Zahedi as their approved replacement ruler and restoring foreign access to Iranian oil assets.

Amirani concludes that overthrowing Mosaddegh did ruinous damage to the political landscape of the Middle East, ushering in decades of repressive regimes across the region while poisoning relations between Iran and the West to this day. This verdict is beyond dispute, but further claims that the 1953 coup opened up a new era of regime change by British and American intelligence services ring a little false given previous interventions in Panama, Cuba, Greece, Syria, Mexico and other nations. Coup 53 does not need these simplistic, hyperbolic assertions. On its own terms, it tells a fascinating story in forensic detail, a bitter history lesson that still feels timely almost 70 years later.

Original title: Coup 53
Year: 2019
Runtime 118′
Country: United Kingdom
Languages: English, Farsi
Directed by: Taghi Amirani
Written by: Taghi Amirani, Walter Murch
Produced by: Taghi Amirani, Paul Zaentz
Cinematography by: Chris Morphet, Taghi Amirani, Claudia Raschke
Edited by: Walter Murch
Music: Robert Miller
Animation: Martyn Pick
Production company: Amirani Media