Amy Taubin on Taghi Amirani’s Coup 53 (2019)


August 19, 2020

Amy Taubin on Taghi Amirani’s Coup 53 (2019)

Taghi Amirani, Coup 53, 2019, DCP, color and black-and-white, sound, 121 minutes.

A REVELATORY INVESTIGATIVE DOCUMENTARY that is dense with detail and yet drives like a thriller, Taghi Amirani’s Coup 53 tells the story of how Mohammod Massadegh, Iran’s only democratically elected Prime Minister, was driven from office and replaced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who would rule as an absolute monarch until he was sent packing by the Islamic revolution of 1979. Since this is a story about Iran, it is also about the CIA and “Big Oil.” But the largely new wrinkle that Amirani’s film uncovers is the role that the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) played in maintaining what was basically colonialism by another name.Amirani, an Iranian-born documentarian who with his family escaped the Shah’s Iran in 1975, became invested—intellectually and emotionally—in the figure of Massadegh, a European-educated lawyer, from an upper-class family, who wanted to transform Iran into a secular democracy. Massadegh understood that for Iran to thrive economically, it needed to nationalize its oil resources. Through a combination of interviews and archival footage from the first half of the twentieth century, Coup 53 traces the history of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which took more than 85 percent of the profits from the black gold it pumped from Iran’s land and waters, exploiting Iranian labor while its executives lived in luxury, much as the British had lived in India. For Amirani, the parallel between Massadegh’s vision of a democratic, independent Iran and that of Mahatma Gandhi for India makes the narrative of Massadegh’s brief tenure as prime minister and the 1953 coup that removed him from power a tragedy, not only for Iran but for the entire Middle East to the present day.Ten years in the making, Coup 53 is a personal essay, an extraordinarily researched historical document, and a film about the process of its own making. We follow Amirani and his editor and cowriter Walter Murch as they ferret out information, film interviews, and put together the pieces of a puzzle so complex that this viewer was happy for the opportunity that streaming gives not only for multiple viewing but to roll back and forth through the most complicated scenes just to see how they fit together. It’s been known for decades that President Eisenhower signed off on the coup, counseled by the Dulles brothers, John Foster (Secretary of State) and Allen (CIA director-in-chief), all of them suffering from the onset of Cold War paranoia and fearful that an independent Iran would form an alliance with the Soviet Union. It is less widely known that Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave British intelligence the greenlight to collaborate with the CIA and its point person in Iran, Kermit Roosevelt, to overthrow Mossadegh and return the Shah to power, thus ending Iranian democracy for a mere $60,000. The CIA went on to employ the same cost-effective model to bring down and assassinate, among others, the Independent Democratic Republic of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and Chile’s Salvador Allende, but were shocked to discover that their method didn’t succeed against Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro.At the center of Coup 53 is a mysteriously missing piece of film, an interview that was shot for the episode about Iran in the 1985 Granada television series The End of Empire. Although the British had long denied their involvement in the 1953 coup, Amirani discovered two transcripts of an interview with MI6 operative Norman Darbyshire in which he explains not only how he orchestrated the coup but also the assassination and torture of Mossadegh’s chief of police. But Darbyshire does not appear in the finished episode, nor is there any footage of him in the archive of outtakes at the British Film Institute. Even more mysteriously, a feature about the film published in the Observer describes the Darbyshire interview, but when Amirani telephones the writer, he claims not to remember whether he ever saw the film or just read the script, which of course makes one wonder who leaked it to him and why. Even more amusingly, one of the producers and the script supervisor claim not to remember if Darbyshire was ever filmed or even interviewed. It takes the cameraman to confirm that not only did he shoot the Darbyshire interview, he remembered exactly where it took place and how the shot was framed. And that is exactly how Amirani frames Ralph Fiennes (no slouch at playing spies) when he becomes Darbyshire’s stand-in and reads the entire text of the interview, inflecting it with just enough contempt to suggest that Darbyshire risked violating the Official Secrets Act because he was annoyed not to have been given enough credit for ensuring the profits of British Petroleum and changing the course of Iranian history for decades.Also opening this week is a more conventionally structured documentary about Iranian and American relations, Barbara Kopple’s Desert One. Commissioned by A&E, it depicts the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran that made Jimmy Carter a one-term president. Focused on an event that takes place more than twenty-five years after the 1953 coup, it shows how the strained relationship between the two countries is rooted in America’s support of the Shah and his terrorist regime. Commenced by the overthrow of Mossadegh, these tensions have only simmered since the Shah was driven into exile by the Iranian revolution. Kopple filmed some moving recent interviews—with Carter, with several of the hostages who were held captive for 444 days, and also with some of the military personnel who were involved in the failed mission to rescue them. Anyone looking for proof that the CIA struck a deal with Ayatollah Khomeini not to release the hostages until minutes after Reagan’s inauguration won’t find it here, although two of the interviewees admit to having a gut feeling that it happened just that way. — Amy Taubin

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