The events that led to the 1953 Iranian coup d’état are laid bare in Taghi Amirani’s documentary, which seeks to expose those pulling the strings behind the overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. It is an event in Iran’s history which is often cited as being the catalyst for the development of the country across the rest of the 20th Century and into the modern era. Coup 53 aims to dramatise the events through careful research, gathering together the missing pieces of information to construct the clearest picture possible of what occurred during the coup and the planning behind it.
Amirani’s film is very much one of two halves. The first half involves his own personal efforts to put the jigsaw together of who exactly was behind the planning of the coup that sought to strengthen the monarchical power of the Shah. While the US government has confirmed its involvement in the planning of the coup in order to protect their own interest in Iranian oil, the British government still has the full details of their involvement under lock and key. The reality of the situation that Amirani uncovers is that this coup was very much the work of a CIA and MI6 joint operation, and one key thread of string allows Amirani to use his film to call the British government into account.
This key thread arrives in the form of a former MI6 agent called Derbyshire. Upon the discovery of a transcript of an interview conducted with Derbyshire for an ITV documentary series in the 80’s, Amirani finds evidence of an agent directly admitting that the British Secret Service was very instrumental in the planning of the coup. No recorded interview exists of Derbyshire, so in order to bring this startling transcript to life, Amirani does the next best thing: he casts Ralph Fiennes to play Derbyshire. With his key piece of the puzzle reincorporated into the story of the coup, important details are able to be told for the first time, as the second half of the film moves from Amirani’s attempts to gather information into a more straightforward chronicle of the events.
The first half of the film is very intriguing in regards to how it is directly addressing the filmmakers role in constructing a documentary, positioning Amirani and his editor (the great Walter Murch) as individuals who suddenly have a greater responsibility upon the discovery of Derbyshire’s account. It is largely dramatised through seeing the admittedly charismatic Amirani thumbing through documents and folders, so it is never particularly the most engrossing means of constructing drama. That is until the second half, which uses archival footage, Fiennes’ performance and animation to bring the events of the coup to life.
This second half of the film plays out much more like a pot boiler thriller, as the plans unfold, demonstrating the US and UK governments’ intention to interfere in order to maintain their hold over Iranian oil, something which Mosaddegh’s premiership threatened. The film captures the powder keg feeling that surely would have gripped those involved, from the agents planning the coup to Mosaddegh himself. The weight of the reality of the situation at the time, and its overarching influence over the destiny of Iran, truly comes to bear in the latter half of the film, making the experience educational, enlightening and enthralling.
The sense that one has at the end of Coup 53 is a sense of anger, a sense of guilt on behalf of your government, as a result of seeing a story in which the greed of Western powers intervening in a manner which completely changed the course of history in a foreign country. It is just one such example of that narrative, and one which addresses notions of accountability in an effective and intriguing manner.
Coup 53 aims to dramatise the events through careful research – educational, enlightening and enthralling.