“Coup 53”: Taghi Amirani’s Documentary Masterpiece

August 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

It’s rare that a documentary reminds me how much I loved making documentaries, but Taghi Amirani’s “Coup 53” did just that. A ten-year project gleaned from tons of archival material, numerous eyewitness interviews and 532 hours of footage, the film details the MI6 and CIA-led coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran,  Mohammad Mossadegh. Plotting the story as tightly as a thriller, Amirani and his editor Walter Murch follow Britain and America’s lust for Iranian oil to its tragic culmination: a violent overthrow that changed the course of Iran’s history. As Amirani said in a live interview afterwards, “Everything is rooted in ’53.”

Mossadegh’s nationalization of the joint British/Iranian oil production facility in 1951 was Iran’s response to years of capital theft by the British. Expelled from the Abadan plant, British Petroleum engineers sabotaged the equipment, rendering it inoperable. After Mossadegh took Iran’s case to the World Court and won, Britain attempted a coup in 1951. Lacking U.S. support–Truman had rejected it–the coup failed miserably. But in 1953 Truman was gone, and Eisenhower agreed to a second coup that succeeded. Mossadegh was ousted, spent three years in prison and the rest of his life under house arrest. The Shah returned from exile, and his  repressive regime lasted until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

What initially drew me to the film was the participation of Walter Murch, best known for picture and sound editing on Coppola’s films, and Ralph Fiennes. Initially I assumed Feinnes was a producer, but he plays a thrilling onscreen role as the late Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 agent who planned both coups. Darbyshire, who was interviewed for the 1985 Channel 4 series “End of Empire,” never appeared on camera, and his revealing interview was cut from the final program. (To this day, Britain has never admitted its role in the coup. The United States has, and a statement by the CIA in 2017 expressed regret for its participation.) Amirani initially received a heavily redacted transcription of Darbyshire’s interview; later, he was given the unexpurgated version. The latter is what Feinnes performs uncannily, according to Darbyshire’s widow. 

Walter Murch, Jon Snow, Taghi Amirani and Ralph Fiennes


The on-camera presence of Feinnes, Murch, and Amirani adds complexity to an already fascinating film. Beyond the interviews, old and new, and archival pictures and footage, there is animation for scenes that where film or photographs don’t exist. All these elements add up to a mesmerizing, tragic and finely crafted documentary that deserves a wide audience.

In the interview afterwards by the journalist Jon Snow, Amirani talked about the fact that “distributors didn’t touch this film, just like funders didn’t.” Raising money privately added years to the project, but the “Coup 53” was finally finished, and it’s a triumph. To see it online, go to http://www.coup53.com.

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