×

Telluride Film Review: ‘Coup 53’

Through archival footage and an excess of talking heads, Taghi Amirani studiously dissects the 1953 Anglo American coup in Iran with mixed cinematic results.

Director:
Taghi Amirani
With:
(English, Persian, Italian, French dialogue)

Running time: 118 MIN.

For many Americans unaware of its origins, the critical chapter of Iran-U.S. relations has started in 1979 with the Iranian hostage crisis. In “Coup 53,” veteran documentarian Taghi Amirani goes further back in time, all the way to the summer of 1953, which marked the real beginnings of the discord. Through intricately gathered, never-seen-before archival documentation and a sequence of spine-tingling revelations, he studiously explains the full spectrum of the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, orchestrated by the U.S. and U.K. Under the code name Operation Ajax, the two nations collaborated to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (who alarmed them by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry) and to reinstall the Shah.

In a past interview, the filmmaker Amirani himself has jokily referred to his years-in-the-making effort as “a prequel to Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’” — an accurate enough description, except, rather than a swift political thriller, “Coup 53” often plays like a lengthy lecture or a formal procedural delivered by what feels like an endless string of talking heads. This educational approach is not always a bad thing for a slice of history not as commonly known to the mainstream public, but key to understanding today’s clash between Iran and U.S., along with the present-day situation in the Middle East.

Still, you often find yourself wishing for a more fluid arrangement of all the moving parts, and there are many. Despite the scrupulous work of the multi-Oscar-winning Walter Murch, the legendary film editor of “Apocalypse Now” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (credited as co-writer alongside Amirani), there is a sense of informational excess in “Coup 53,” begging the question whether a Ken Burns-style episodic approach could have served the vast material better than a feature-length film. In that, the theatrical prospects of “Coup 53” might be limited, though it can easily enjoy a healthy life on a streamer like Netflix, and find a worldwide audience base for its important and indisputably interesting topic.

Popular on Variety

Both a narrator and an on-camera subject who grew up with stories of the coup, Amirani proves captivating to follow, as he chases pieces of evidence not only to elucidate the American hand in the coup, but also to uncover and prove the British involvement. Turns out, unlike the American leadership that had eventually declassified various CIA documents relevant to the operation, the U.K. government has not necessarily admitted to their participation in the events — at least not to the extent of their responsibility.

This truth provides Amirani with the most cinematically thrilling path in “Coup 53,” especially once the filmmaker discovers a British MI6 operative named Norman Darbyshire. While his name is blanked out or simply clipped off from piles of interviews and other archival material Amirani unearths, Darbyshire still pops up in various files as one of the leading British names who masterminded the operation.

And we see a picture of the ever-mysterious Darbyshire, all right: clean-cut, well dressed and sporting cool shades, and yet, completely absent in video or audio files. To their credit, the filmmakers manage to turn this apparent hindrance to their advantage, and manage to add some color to the narrative by casting (spoiler alert) none other than the ever-charismatic Ralph Fiennes in the role. A pitch-perfect match for the subject, Fiennes assumes the identity of the mysterious operative and reads through the interviews in first-person. This semi-reenactment breathes some much-needed fresh air into the film that often jumps around one too many interviewees.

Though it’s hard to blame Amirani for the excess when he has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal after a decade of meticulous research and logistical setbacks, both financial and personal. Via both original and archival interviews (some painstakingly gathered from the BFI) as well as some original rotoscope animation when no archive exists, we get to hear from the likes of Kermit Roosevelt (the U.S.-side director of the coup), journalists David Talbot and Stephen Kinzer, relatives of Mosaddegh (including his nephew Farhad Diba), Ardeshir Zahedi (who played a key role in the coup), historian Ervand Abrahamian and various other archivists and documentary figures with a deep understanding of the topic. While it’s a huge jigsaw puzzle to keep up with, the lineup is nothing short of impressive.

The most notable achievement of “Coup 53” is daring the viewer to imagine a different Middle East today — what would have happened had Mosaddegh (whom Amirani sees as a Gandhi-like figure for Iran) not been overthrown? What would a flourishing and fair democracy in the region mean for the future of the Middle East? The world would perhaps have been a different place, Amirani imagines, knowing that mankind will never live in that version of the globe.

Telluride Film Review: 'Coup 53'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 1, 2019. (Also in BFI London Film Festival.) Running time: 118 MIN.

Production: (Documentary – U.K.-Iran-U.S.) An Amirani Media production. Producer: Paul Zaentz. Executive producers: Gerry Ohstrom Neda Nobari, Jon Wilcox. Co-producers: Amir Amirani, Ahmad Kiarostami.

Crew: Director: Taghi Amirani. Camera (color/B&W): Chris Morphet, Taghi Amirani, Claudia Raschke. Editor: Walter Murch. Music: Robert Miller.

With: (English, Persian, Italian, French dialogue)

More Film

  • Fernando Szew and Tomas Yankelevich

    Particular Crowd, MarVista Set 10-Plus Movies a Year Partnership (EXCLUSIVE)

    MIAMI — Particular Crowd, the big new film banner of Warner Media’s Turner Latin America, and MarVista Entertainment, one of the world’s biggest and ambitious of independent entertainment studios, have announced a multi-year production slate deal. As part of the deal, Particular Crowd and MarVista will target production of 10-plus films per year, focusing on elevated [...]

  • Andy Serkis

    BAFTA to Honor Andy Serkis

    The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) is presenting Andy Serkis with its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award at the 73rd EE British Academy Film Awards ceremony on Feb. 2 in London. The organization said Thursday that it was honoring the British actor, producer and director for his pioneering work on performance [...]

  • The Olympic Rings adorn an event

    Tokyo Olympics Brings Upheaval to Japan's Summer Events Schedule

    The Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to Aug. 9, and Paralympics, scheduled for Aug. 25 to Sept. 9, are affecting Japan’s big summer events. Everything from fireworks displays to music festivals have chosen to shift dates or even cancel altogether. The only film festival so far to announce a change in dates [...]

  • The Rescue

    Overseas Releases of Chinese Films to be Cancelled Following Virus Outbreak

    The overseas release of Chinese films in the next weeks is certain to be affected by the cancellation of theatrical outings in mainland China as a response to the rampant spread of the coronavirus. On Thursday, movie companies in China announced they would not go ahead with the release of seven major films at Chinese [...]

  • Boris JohnsonConservative Party rally on eve

    U.K. Parliament Passes Brexit Law, Leaving Film, TV Incentives Unaffected

    The U.K. Parliament on Wednesday evening passed legislation paving the way for the country to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. had “crossed the Brexit finish line” following passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, which will officially become law when it receives royal assent from Queen [...]

  • A security guard wears a mask

    Chinese New Year Film Releases Cancelled in Response to Coronavirus

    The deadly coronavirus outbreak has dealt a fatal blow to China’s biggest movie-going weekend of the year, as all new releases were cancelled to prevent further spread of the disease. Seven major films were expected to have been released over the coming weekend, with the likelihood that together they would have earned more than $1 [...]

  • The Turning

    Film Review: ‘The Turning’

    Director Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” is like the alt-rock cousin of author Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.” From its grunge-infused soundtrack and period setting to its fiery feminist overtones, this is an ambitious contemporary take on the iconic, claustrophobic thriller. Concerning two young orphans who psychologically torment their caretaker in a spooky, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content