Review – ‘coup 53’ (2020)

Coup 53 is a dramaturgical feature documentary that exposes the MI6 cover-up of its staged coup with the CIA – Operation Ajax – that overthrew the Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. The coup of 1953 reinstated a young Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as the King of an oil empire. Writer/Director and star, Taghi Amirani, employs a clever use of archive footage in addition to the ingenious casting of actor Ralph Fiennes, who portrays a fictional version of Norman Darbyshire – the undercover MI6 Agent and leading figure of the coup d’etat in 1953. Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was “the closest Iran came to having its own Mahatma Gandhi.” said Taghi Amirani. Moreover, Coup 53 is a strongly heeded documentary written & edited by Oscar winning film editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, The Conversation, The English Patient) who also makes appearances in the film. Aside from his masterful editing techniques of film and sound, Walter Murch’s clout has the potential to bring the undivided attention of the masses to this theatrical documentary.

Amirani Media (2020)

Walter Murch, author of the popular film editing book “In the Blink of an Eye”, won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing for The English Patient (1997), in addition to Best Sound Mixing on Francis Coppola’s Vietnam war-epic Apocalypse Now (1979). The first film Walter Murch edited and mixed was Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1973) – an underrated feature narrative starring Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1974. Walter Murch’s involvement with the making of Coup 53 elevates the film to a heightened pedigree. “They were fictional films, but in terms of the material and how you waded through a huge amount of material to extract these little gems to tell the story is exactly what I was doing on Coup 53.” Walter Murch said, in an interview with Forbes. Walter Murch and Taghi Amirani had hundreds of hours of footage to select from, in narrowing down the film to its 120-minute length, to tell the open-secret story.

Amirani Media (2020)

Mohammad Mossadegh was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1952, beating fellow candidates Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.  “Mossadegh was potentially the father of a future democratic Iran.” Amirani said. The opening credit sequence moves fast, setting the tone for a deep-rooted, weighty documentary filled with a wealth of information. Amirani gets access to hundreds of official CIA documents released throughout several decades, regarding US affairs with Iran. One of the files are called ‘Battle for Iran’. “In 1953, the United States together with Britain, had participated in supporting a coup in Iran that got rid of Mossadegh – who was a left leaning leader of Iran – and restored the Shah into power in Iran.” President Richard Nixon said, in an archived interview that’s remastered in high-definition, making it look as if he was still alive today. Dr. Mossadegh irritated Winston Churchill because he wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil. The CIA documents indicate that “the military coup was carried out under CIA direction…the official admission by both the United States and the United Kingdom”. Coup 53 reveals how, unlike the US, the British haven’t admitted their involvement in Operation Ajax.

Amirani Media (2020)

“So this is the CIA outing the British, who have not yet confessed to it.” Amirani said to Malcom Byrne, Deputy director of the National Security Archive.  “It was carried out by the CIA as an act of US foreign policy”, Amirani said, while reading from the transcript. An archived interview of Kermit Roosevelt Jr. reveals his baffled admittance of how the staged coup only used $60,000 of an available $1 Million in funds. But early in the documentary, a clip of 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders makes it hauntingly clear that “…this has been going on for 50 years, where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments. Mossadegh, back in 1953, nobody knows who Mossadegh was – Democratic elected Prime Minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interests because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that, the Shah of Iran came in – terrible dictator – and as a result of that, you had the Iranian revolution coming in, and that’s where we are today.” said Bernie Sanders, regarding the folly of attacking Iran in 1953, that led to the emergence of theocratic heavies who would takeover Iran in 1979 and ruthlessly oppose the United States until the present-day. The documentary drives the point that the Islamic Revolution was a byproduct of the Coup in 1953. The Iranian middle-class became a woke culture in the 1970s and their riots and demonstrations led to an outing of the Shah in 1979, in what would ultimately become the regretful arrival of a theocratic dictatorship that would rule Iran until the present-day, over 40 years later.

Amirani Media (2020)

Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch’s clever use of archive footage enhances the original picture resolution and doesn’t fill up the entire screen; ¼ of the screen is in black while the picture is remastered with added film grain. There is a lot to uncover in Coup 53, and that should come as no surprise since the documentary reportedly took several years to make. Coup 53 literally follows Amirani compiling loads of research to shed light on the British government’s unacknowledged involvement with the coup. The documentary is incredibly historical and informative, revealing facts that would otherwise go unnoticed, and incapable of being discovered in history books. The documentary touches on how Dr. Mossadegh was criticized by the British for his style of clothing, dressing in loose-fitting apparel; it was his education and political competence that made him Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, not his fashion sense. “While he was still a teenager, he became the chief tax collector for his home province. He greatly impressed people…he went on to become highly educated. He was the first Iranian to receive a Doctorate in Law from a European University. “ said Stephen Kinzer, author of the bestseller “All the Shah’s Men” – a book that clearly explains the folly of attacking Iran in 1953. But aside from his left leaning democratic views, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh had ties to royal monarchies as well; his father was a finance minister and his mother was a Princess of the Qajar Dynasty – a Kingdom of Turkic descent that ruled over Iran from 1789-1925.

Amirani Media (2020)

“Mossadegh was incorruptible.” The Iranian delegate Nasrollah Fatemi said, in an archived interview. “The second thing was, he was against power. Always stood up to power.” Fatemi said. Writer/Director Taghi Amirani does a careful job in depicting an unbiased perspective of his political views while showing interviews of Iranians with opposing opinions. “This is the young Shah who always put a wrench in Mossadegh’s work.” Dr. Mossadegh’s grandson, Hedayat Matine-Daftary said, in a clever and politically correct manner about the Shah. Then there’s Ardeshir Zahedi, the former Iranian diplomat and Ambassador to the US and the UK who served as Foreign minister under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, “He was a lying bastard. And he had syphilis. But I shouldn’t say that, because that’s not nice.” Zahedi said, with a bitter tone and politically incorrect choice of words about the late Prime Minister, Dr. Mossadegh.

(c) Associated Press

The British Film Institute authorized Taghi Amirani to use all the rushes from End of Empire (1985), a documentary that exposes the United Kingdom’s denied involvement with Operation Ajax. The making of End of Empire, a 14-part documentary, plays a central figure in Coup 53, to uncover the identity of Norman Darbyshire  – the undercover spy that led the coup in Iran. The British Film Institute deleted his interviews from the episode about Iran. Coup 53 tells us that Darbyshire’s CIA counterpart was Stephen Meade, and the mystery heightens to great levels once we discover with Taghi Amirani that Darbyshire’s name had been wiped out from all the files. Coup 53 employs a magnificent use of sound, causing suspense and mystery. The mood of the documentary is like solving a “whodunit” with Taghi Amirani at the forefront, putting together the pieces of the puzzle, in what appears to be a clever reenactment from years of research. Amirani contacts the filmmakers behind the End of Empire documentary to inquire about Darbyshire, and actor Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, The English Patient) stands in as Darbyshire for the never-before-seen interview, reading from the original transcripts.

Amirani Media (2020)

“Under the original agreement, only about 16 percent of the oil revenue was supposed to be given to Iran. But that 16 percent was calculated after the oil company paid its taxes. So when the British paid taxes, they were paying taxes to themselves. Since they owned the oil company and they wouldn’t release in the information to Iran, they thought they were getting screwed.” Darbyshire said. “Almost all the money from this tremendous recourse was going to Britain. And almost nothing was going to Iran.”  Stephen Dorril, author of the book “MI6: 50 Years of Special Operations”, claims in Coup 53 that Darbyshire was the key person on behalf of the MI6, from recruiting people close to the Shah as the main organizer of the coup. Norman Darbyshire spoke Persian (Farsi) and French while covertly investigating Iranian culture and politics for several years in the 1940s. There is a moment in the documentary that reveals a photograph with him in the background, a mysterious figure wearing sunglasses who becomes the provocative enigma of Coup 53. Amirani and Murch unravel the BBC transcript from End of Empire and Ralph Fiennes’ forthright delivery of Darbyshire’s interview transcript is performed in a blunt manner. When Darbyshire (Fiennes) is asked if he was involved in the assassination of Dr. Mossadegh’s Police Chief Afshartous, he responds “Yeah, yes. The actual running of the coup from our side was my responsibility.” Darbyshire said. “The Persians were bitterly resentful with the way they were being treated by the British.”

Cover Credit: Boris Chaliapin

The documentary touches on how Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s twin sister, travelled from Paris to Tehran to transport a message which demanded for the Shah to endorse Ardeshir Zahedi as the newly appointed Prime Minister, in place of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt) came into Iran and took over the journalists, convincing them to write negative propaganda labeling Dr. Mossadegh a Jewish, communist fanatic – publicity spins and counter-information geared toward giving the Iranian masses a negative perception of the Prime Minister.  

Middleburg Film Festival Q&A with Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch

Coup 53 discusses how the Shah flew to Rome, immediately after the failed first attempt of the coup on August 19th, 1953. The documentary reveals how the masses thought the Shah was a coward when he fled with his 2nd wife, Queen Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary. “The Shah has jumped onto a cart and escaped!” The documentary reveals through media headlines, along with “Forced to flee his palace in Tehran”, explaining the great condescension and scorn the masses had for the Shah. And to the Shah’s avail, he and his Queen Soraya took protective shelter at the luxurious Hotel Excelsior in Rome – an accommodation of the CIA – while there was turmoil occurring in Iran. Three days later, the Shah and Queen Soraya returned to Iran on August 22nd, 1953, where he regained his throne as the Monarch of an oil empire.

Amirani Media (2020)

Coup 53 ends with spine chilling sequences that bring the narrative full-circle by showing an archived interview of an older Shah, two decades after the coup of ’53. “In the old days, you British, and others, who have entrance here (Iran), you could change Prime Ministers as you wished. Are you sorry for that time? That you have lost? Do you want the same thing? To manipulate our internal affairs? We won’t let you.” A haunting statement by the Shah that puts everything in perspective. It’s as if the Shah almost regrets what the MI6 and the CIA did. And in that moment of the interview, he would stand his ground and refuse to let it happen again – but it was too late; the Shah was forced into exile onto a controversial medical journey for the treatment of his ill health.

Amirani Media (2020)

Stephen Kinzer, author of the bestselling book “All the Shah’s Men”, makes a profound statement at the end of the documentary: “Had we not overthrown Mossadegh in 1953, it would have allowed democracy (in Iran) to grow. We might have had a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East, all these 60 years. And I can hardly wrap my mind around how different the Middle East would be, if that were the example we’d set. Instead, we set the opposite example. Here was the message we sent to the rising generations of leaders throughout the Middle East: The United States does not want democracy. Because democracy in the Middle East is going to lead to demands of controlling resources. What we want, is a dictatorial leader who can repress his people as much as he wants, and we will help him do that, as long as he gives us free access to oil. That was the message given during the Iran coup. And that message was heard, all over the Middle East. And it led to the emergence of all the kinds of regimes in the Middle East, that have created the crises that we now live with.”

Amirani Media (2020)

Coup 53 debuted on August 19th, 2020 with various online platforms, marking the 67th Year Anniversary of the Coup. The documentary triggers a tremendous level of responsibility toward the British governments still-denied involvement in the coup of 1953 and reveals the mind-boggling cover-ups of the MI6 – the Secret Intelligence Service of the United Kingdom. The underlying thesis of the documentary serves as a reminder for the consequences incurred with the folly of attacking Iran in 1953, which led to the revolution of 1979 and the current disastrous state of affairs between the United States and Iran. “There was a pattern established in Iran,” Murch said. “That was the first time the Americans had destabilized a foreign government in another hemisphere. This became a template, unfortunately, for everything moving forward.” Walter Murch said, referring to the wide variety of CIA successes and failures in overthrowing governments. The Coup of ’53 in Iran spawned a wave of covert operations: the Guatemalan coup d’etat to depose President Jacobo Arbenz which ended the Guatemalan Revolution, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro, the failure of the disastrous Vietnam War, and the Iraq War to depose a regime that was in possession of “weapons of mass destruction.” Coup 53 is a clever, intriguing and masterful body of work that shines a bright light upon an open-secret that hasn’t been discussed enough.

Coup 53 (2020) – Trailer

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