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.
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.