Coup 53 (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): The story behind the 1953 coup in Iran

Documentary film “Coup 53” leads us into the hidden story behind the 1953 coup d’état in Iran, and it is often compelling to watch even if you already have some background knowledge on its main subject like me. Although it has been no secret that the American and British government were deeply involved in overthrowing the Iranian government at that time, the documentary delves deeper into how that actually happened, and then it sharply reminds us of how this historical incident has influenced not only the Middle East but also the rest of the world during next several decades.

At first, the documentary follows its director/co-producer/co-writer Taghi Amirani’s long personal research on the 1953 coup. As an Iranian who was born and then grew up in Iran during the post-coup period, he is clearly passionate about this project of his, and the documentary shows him visiting a number of various archival institutes including the one located in Washington D.C., where heaps of old declassified CIA documents have been stored for historical research.

While looking into the declassified CIA documents involved with the 1953 coup, Amirani notices a passage recognizing the involvement of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) at that time, and he decides to go further for finding more about this rather unknown historical fact. He subsequently comes to delve into a bunch of archival interview clips and transcripts for the production of an old British TV documentary made in 1985, and, to his surprise, he comes across a transcript containing the forthright admission on the involvement of MI6 in the 1953 coup.

Although the interview clip associated with this transcript cannot be found, Amirani already knows the name of that interviewee in question. He is an MI6 official named Norman Darbyshire, and what he told besides that admission during the interview is pretty illuminating to say the least. When Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh embarked on the nationalization of the oil industry in his country in the early 1950s, the British government, which had benefited a lot from virtually owning the oil industry in Iran since the early 20th century, was certainly not so pleased to say the least. While Mossadegh, who was a humble but exceptional politician who could have been a shining emblem of Middle East democracy if not for the 1953 coup, simply wanted to bring back the enormous profit of the Iranian oil industry to the people of his country, this was regarded as a considerable loss of global political and economic power for the British government and its prime minister Winston Churchill, and they were willing to do anything for eliminating Mossadegh as soon as possible.

However, things did not look exactly promising for the British government at the beginning, because UN and the International court said no to its following political tactics for retrieving the Iranian oil industry. In addition, the US government led by President Harry S. Truman had no particular problem with having a good diplomatic relationship with Mossadegh, who had made pretty good impressions on many American and international politicians via his natural charisma.

However, unfortunately, the tide was soon turned opposite for Mossadegh when President Truman was succeeded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. As beginning to play the Cold War diplomatic game with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower and his US government were compelled to go for more drastic measures for securing more political power and influence around the world, and CIA, which was led by its newly appointed director Allen Dulles at that time, soon came to work closely with MI6 once Iran was regarded as another precious geopolitical spot to be secured by any means necessary.

While meeting a wide range of various interviewees willing to tell more about the 1953 coup, Amirani also shows us how he worked closely with his co-writer/editor Walter Murch (Yes, he is that legendary editor who won three Oscars while working on many famous films including “Apocalypse Now” (1979)), and we get some glimpses on how they gathered various pieces together for the big historical picture of their documentary. Furthermore, Amirani has Ralph Finnese speak as Darbyshire in front of the camera, and Finnese’s fine delivery of Derbyshire’s words on that transcript is flawlessly mixed along with many different archival interview clips used in the documentary.

The documentary eventually culminates to that fateful day of August 1953, and Amirani did a skillful job of shuffling between archival records, interview clips, and a series of animation scenes recreating several key happenings during that day. Despite some setbacks, the coup was successful in the end because of the last-minute push from CIA and MI6, and several Iranian interviewees in the documentary emotionally reminisce about what they experienced during that tragic day for Iran. While Mossadegh was eventually ousted then jailed till his death in 1967, lots of Iranian people were killed as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi gladly seized absolute power as the Shah of Iran, and, as many of you know, his brutal regime only led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In case of the US government, it became more confident about overthrowing unfavorable foreign governments, and what was resulted from that still affects our world even at present.

Although it feels rather unfocused at times as popping up many different pieces of information here and there, “Coup 53” still intrigued and engaged me enough thanks to Amirani’s competent direction. It did not surprise me much, but I got informed more on its main subject in addition to being entertained by its good presentation, and that is enough for me now.

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