Looking for a political thriller to suck you in for a couple of hours? Then watch this documentary. Iranian director Taghi Amirani spent ten years filming his obsessive hunt for documents and witnesses to tell the story of the coup d’état that stopped democracy in Iran in its tracks, all because the new, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh had the gall to nationalize the oil industry. It is common knowledge that the US and UK were behind it, and the CIA has even declassified some of the documents related to their part in it, but the UK and MI6 have never admitted their role. In the film, Amirani is reading through transcripts from a 1985 BBC series called “End of Empire” that talks about Iran when he notices that there is one interview that has been totally redacted. The transcripts are heavily edited to obscure the name. The filmed interview itself is nowhere to be found in the BBC archives. And he knows that this interview could be the key to the whole story.

He contacts the researcher from the series and she remembers it. The cameraman remembers shooting it, and also remembers the guy had disclosed things that made his mouth drop. Amirani ultimately finds the unreacted interview transcripts that someone had the foresight to hide away to be found later. The spy’s name was Norman Derbyshire and he spilled all the gory details of the operation. But since the actual footage has never shown up, Amirani brilliantly recreats the interview from the transcripts with the aid of award-winning actor Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter, Schindler’s List) channelling Derbyshire. And it’s riveting!

Large parts of the film are of the director flying around the world to uncover records that have languished in archives and basements. He sits with boxes of declassified CIA documents, interviews Mossadegh’s grandson who has a trove of tapes his his Paris flat’s basement, and sifts through hours of the BBC’s footage. And that part of the film is like a detective story. But it is when he finds the Derbyshire transcript that things take darker turn. Ralph Fiennes’s version of the man is fascinating. He’s unmuzzled but in a very restrained and weary British way. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

The story of Mossadegh’s overthrow and the subsequent installation of the Shah is well known, but the behind the scenes intrigue is right out of an espionage novel with real life politicians and spies with questionable morals. Churchill and Eisenhower joined forces when it looked like the oil and its profits were going to be controlled by Iran. Churchill because of the economy, Ike because of the Cold War. And despite the Hague and UN being on the side of the Iranians, opposition was bought and paid for, those close to the Prime Minister were killed, and the US and UK were able to blockade all oil coming out of the country. The CIA called it Operation Ajax and it is considered the first regime-change operation they carried out. They used all the usual tricks – placing propaganda in the Iranian press, paying mobs to protest, working closely with military General Fazlollah Zahedi who would be named Prime Minister in the Shah’s new government. Mossadegh was ultimately captured and tried and held in internal exile for the rest of his life. And you can draw a straight line from this coup to the West’s relationship with Iran today. It’s maddening!

The film is really quite a feat. That they had such mountains of information that they were able to assemble into such a compelling film is in large part thanks to three time Oscar winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient). With a two hour length it never drags. Some scenes of the overthrown are rotoscoped and fit seamlessly into the narrative. Even Fiennes’s reenactment feels organic. Coup 53 is a must see documentary for its timely story and its amazing execution. I highly recommend it!

Mostly in English with subtitles where needed, the film is available in virtual cinemas nationwide.

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