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Film Review: “Coup 53” Effectively Explains Iran’s Present Through Its Past

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 24th, 2020

Film poster: “Coup 53”

Coup 53 (Taghi Amirani, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

Ever since the 1950s, the history of Iran has been inextricably linked to that of the United States, given our active instigation, side by side with the British, of the 1953 coup d’état that overthrew the country’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. That action emboldened the monarch, or Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to become ever more autocratic, oppressing opposition to his government with an increasingly iron fist. Think what you will about the 1979 Islamic Revolution, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which resulted, among other things, in the taking of American hostages (see Barbara Kopple’s recent Desert One for additional details on that debacle), but it didn’t come out of nowhere. Call it karma or call it blowback; however you frame it, from their perspective, we kind of had it coming.

In his inventive new documentary, Coup 53, director Taghi Amirani (Red Lines and Deadlines) explores the how and why of that original sin and its effect not only on his birthplace and lives of his fellow Iranians, but on his own personal trajectory, as well. Assisted by the great editor Walter Murch (author, In the Blink of an Eye), who here also serves as co-writer, Amirani contextualizes the political issues of the present in a solid examination of the past. Though the film, at two hours, feels long, it is still highly informative and involving.

l-r: Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in COUP 53 ©Amirani Media

It starts with the British, as do so many 20th-century problems. There’s just something about that former global behemoth that led it, in the waning days of empire, to continue to divide and conquer, drawing lines on maps that would separate Muslims and Hindus (in India) or Palestinians and Jews (in Israel) in ways destined to perpetuate, rather than resolve, conflict. In the case of Iran, it was oil that started the mess. Upon his appointment, in 1951, Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry, which had theretofore been controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later to become British Petroleum, or BP), threatening a major English cash cow. Almost immediately, agents of MI6 (the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence service) began looking for ways to discredit the man and his administration. In the post-WWII world, however, they needed help (and money) from the new imperial superpower, the Americans. Enter the CIA.

Ralph Fiennes in COUP 53 ©Amirani Media

Amirani lays it all out for us in a combination of historical documentary, using copious archival footage, and personal investigation, following clues to uncover the truth behind what happened. To this day, England denies its involvement in the coup, whereas the United States has long copped to it. When Amirani comes across a 1985 made-for-television series entitled End of Empire, with an episode devoted to Iran (which was never an official British colony, yet suffered, as mentioned, from British machinations), he explores further, uncovering first the interview transcripts and then the original filmed interviews. Missing from this vital source is one interview, in particular, with MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire, whose transcript indicates he played a crucial role in Mossadegh’s overthrow, though there is still footage of his CIA counterpart, Stephen Meade. And so Amirani enlists actor Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) to reenact the Darbyshire interview, intercutting that recreation with the other, actual ones.

He also brings in Murch and himself, as protagonists, as well as producers and other creatives behind End of Empire, surviving players from the past (some of whom died before the film’s completion), their children, historians and more. He delves into who Mossadegh was and his ultimate fate, as well as that of the Shah and his cronies. By the end, we have become fully immersed in the ins and out of what went down, and though we may be exhausted by the level of detail and depth of storytelling, we recognize that such an exhaustive approach has the benefit of leaving us with very few questions, though this viewer did emerge still confused about the parliamentary system that existed before Mossadegh’s overthrow. That and length aside, Coup 53 feels complete and comprehensive. Since the legacy of what went down in 1953 is still very much with us – without it, there might well not be an Islamist Iran right now – it behooves us all to learn more about today by discovering yesterday.

Taghi Amirani in COUP 53 ©Amirani Media
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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