2020, NR, 118 min. Directed by Taghi Amirani.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 21, 2020
Contemporary closet conspiracy theorists and Cold War historians both have cause to rejoice in Coup 53. A lively documentary that seeks to untangle a 70 year-long hornet's nest of lies, deceit, Cointelpro, and era-specific documentation surrounding the plotting of the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat.
Why is this seemingly ancient Persian history relevant today, you may ask. Because the coup’s success replaced Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, better known in the West as the Shah of Iran. That’s the same Shah who, due to a combination of widespread corruption and a decidedly authoritarian, autocratic hand, was later overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. That bloody reshuffling of the country’s politics resulted in the formation of the Supreme Leader the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, which in turn helped to incite young militant Islamists to (in)famously seize the American Embassy where they then held 52 hostages for 444 days and effectively curtailed any hope for then-President Jimmy Carter’s re-election. But I digress.
Coup 53 is a historical documentary that plays more like All the President’s Men had it been written by John le Carré with a dash of Costa-Gavras and Manchurian Candidate John Frankenheimer. Director Amirani has an ace in the whole with three-time Oscar winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation) who here not only edits but gets credit for co-writing as well. Amirami has been researching his topic for nine years and it shows. In the process he’s uncovered never before seen footage of the coup and interviewed some of the surviving orchestrators, unearthed secreted caches of CIA and MI6 documents that definitively prove both countries collusion in Mosaddegh’s overthrow (code name: Operation Ajax), and crafted a granular tale of true life treachery with all of the rousing suspense of Ben Affleck’s triple-Oscar winner Argo (which serves quite well as an epilogue to the events depicted here).
The fact that Coup 53 is a studiously granular realpolitik documentary may put off a certain segment of the filmgoing public but Amirami has still more tricks up his directorial sleeve, chief among them hiring actor Ralph Fiennes to portray the role of a key player in the coup, British MI6 operative Norman Darbyshire, whose name and veritable existence have been meticulously redacted – indeed, erased in toto – from the official historical narrative. Fiennes assumes the character and recites shocking revelations that Amirami’s obsessive research has disclosed. It sounds like a cheap trick, but the actor pulls it off flawlessly. Add to that some surprising and exceptional animated sequences the director employs to fill in footage of the coup d’etait itself and you have the makings of a spellbinding rabbit-hole of a movie, rife with outsized characters and conspiracies galore, but also and perhaps more importantly an eye-opening window onto the U.S. and Iran’s current state of mutual enmity.