Coup 53 | Film Review
Timely and Powerful Documentary Delivers

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | April 22, 2020                        

COUP 53 | Film Review

A compelling new film tells the fateful story of the sinister overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, who was elected by Parliament in 1951 on the platform of oil nationalization. His demise at the hands of Iranian, British and American players in August 1953 continues to reverberate, in tragic form, to this day.

Coup 53’s own decade long journey was capricious: it was first conceived as a screenplay for a potential live action Hollywood movie, then pivoted into a straightforward historical documentary, and, after long intervals due to lack of financing, wound up a bit of a hybrid of both. Yet it’s also an international mystery caper, a ‘personal’ film, and a documentary within a documentary (it documents its own making, while delving into the enigmas of another).

The doc in question is End of Empire (1985), which was really just a single episode of a TV series produced in Manchester chronicling the final years of the British empire. Its many candid interviews with British and American officials involved in the Mossadegh saga (all of whom are deceased) make it a useful historical record. Yet at under an hour, a treasure trove of unused material remained. Coup 53’s unprecedented access to that footage, via the British Film Institute’s archives, forms the basis and the body of much of the film.

Out of these archives, it is discovered that British spy Norman Darbyshire, interviewed for the program in 1983, was completely removed from Granada Television’s final cut, and apparently no trace of his appearance remains. [Note: show producers have since said Darbyshire was recorded, but never filmed]

It turns out that a grandson of Dr. Mossadegh who had been an historical adviser on the episode, Hedayat Matin-Daftari, still possesses a stash of production notes. And among the hefty stack of papers — hiding in plain sight — lay a transcript of Darbyshire’s excised, too-hot-to-handle interview. But the transcript itself has key paragraphs sliced out, leading to a further search in which another complete transcript is obtained.

Why all the secrecy? During the interview, the MI6 operative confesses to not only helping to mastermind the coup, but having contributed to bringing about the gruesome murder and torture of a police chief loyal to Mossadegh, Mahmoud Afshartous.

Actor Ralph Fiennes as Norman Darbyshire (Photo by Chris Morphet) This explosive revelation, confirming long-held suspicions of some historians, leads to an investigative phase with Amirani and legendary Hollywood film editor Walter Murch tracking down various personnel from the show to find out what they remember about their encounter with the enigmatic spy.

The absence of this precious Darbyshire footage, the fate of which remains unknown, inspires them to restage it all, enlisting esteemed British actor Ralph Fiennes to perform the lines at London’s famed Savoy Hotel, site of the original interview.

Consequently, Coup 53 hands Darybyshire the spotlight he desired but never received, not necessarily for his overall significance to the coup, but due to the rarity and exclusivity of the material.

Stephen Meade (CIA) There’s footage of another figure completely censored from End of Empire, too. Stephen Meade, an army colonel working with the CIA, had joined with Darbyshire in July 1953 to enlist the aid of Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s twin sister, in the coup plot. His evasiveness when probed is telling.

The Darbyshire rabbit hole, Fiennes’ superb thespianism and the first-person vignettes featuring persevering director Taghi Amirani may add texture and artfulness, but they’re non-essential.

In fact, it would have been great to have more from its surviving players, like a particularly unhinged Ardeshir Zahedi, or see and hear more of Dr. Mossadegh, who is, after all, the center of the drama. The peripheries and process are certainly interesting, but the film shines brightest when it stays on track.

Historically speaking, Coup 53 is generally on point though it comes across as too soft on the Truman administration, and it also indulges the widespread fallacy that the CIA first “officially admitted” to the coup in 2013 (technically, one could go back as far as 1954).

There is also no mention of Hossein Fatemi, the young Foreign Minister, Deputy Premier, and Mossadegh’s most loyal and trusted partner, who ended up on the wrong end of the Shah’s firing squad after the coup. By way of analogy, picture President Eisenhower being overthrown via foreign intrigue and then put on trial for treason, while Sec. of State John Foster Dulles gets hunted down, knifed by thugs and finally shot down like an animal.

Of course, the film is not comprehensive nor could it be; there are too many characters and subplots to fit in its two hour allotment. They actually had 532 hours of material to choose from, reduced to an 8½ hour working assembly, and finally an 118 minute final cut.

But Coup 53 will surely leave viewers more enlightened about this history and its impact. The soundtrack strikes the right chord, the interviews are usually engaging, even moving, and superb animated sequences help visualize the coup’s action and violence, as Murch puts it “kind of in that penumbra zone between reality and memory”.

Iranian-born British filmmaker Taghi Amirani, the director, co-producer, co-writer and narrator, says he didn’t know exactly how his debut feature would unfold, but he was certain of how he wanted audiences to feel by the end. Though not a definitive account of the events, Coup 53 achieves this aspiration.

Coup 53 (2019) trailer

Postscript: Seeing Coup 53

How to watch Coup 53? The movie has actually been kicking around for a while now, debuting at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2019. Since then, it’s been touring the festival circuit internationally and at select screenings at various venues in major cities, alongside Q&A sessions with Amirani and/or Murch.

Yet despite great write-ups including one in The New Yorker, sold out screenings, raves from filmgoers, an Academy-Award winning editor at the helm, and the undeniable topicality of Iran in the news, it has yet to nail a major distribution deal. We’ve had Argo, Not Without My Daughter and the like, is Hollywood afraid of a little role reversal, or is the history still too taboo for comfort?

While ideally viewed on the big screen as intended, the Coronavirus pandemic has obviously made a theatrical run impossible for the time being. Perhaps streaming options may end up preceding or replacing the box office route, as many big budget Hollywood films are now doing. But it isn’t as though Coup 53 lacks commercial appeal.

Like Netflix’s Tiger King phenomenon, Coup 53 features colorful characters, a heinous murder plot, a real life King (who also killed his share of tigers), and enough conspiracy, intrigue and betrayal to make your head spin. Yet the 1953 coup in Iran is far more consequential, altering the fate of a country of over 85 million people forever. In fact, it changed the world.

COUP 53 | Official web site

The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable
The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable


Related links:

The 1953 Coup in Iran Was An Act of War | by Arash Norouzi

The Communist Danger in Persia | Britain’s 1952 Report to U.S.

Campaign To Install Pro-Western Government In Iran | CIA Report (March 1954)

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

Facebook  Twitter  YouTube  Tumblr   Instagram