Producers: Taghi Amirani and Paul Zaentz   Director: Taghi Amirani   Screenplay: Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch   Cast: Ralph Fiennes   Distributor: Amirani Media

Grade: B+

The coup that unseated the democratically-chosen government of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh on August 19, 1953 and returned Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to power, which he retained until fleeing the country on January 16, 1979 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, has long been credited—if that’s the right word—to the CIA and its agent Kermit Roosevelt Jr., who claimed to have been the intrepid manipulator of events. 

The great strength of Taghi Amirani’s exhaustively researched documentary is not merely to lay out the details of the coup and discuss its ramifications for the Middle East (and US policy in general) in the ensuing decades, but to demonstrate that although Roosevelt—and American money—were instrumental in bringing the last stages of the operation off, the real brains behind it was the British intelligence agency MI6, and in particular a shadowy, little-known man named Norman Darbyshire, whose thunder a braggart Roosevelt stole.

Amirani’s film is structured as a detective story in which he slowly and methodically uncovers the evidence of Darbyshire’s central role in the coup, which was planned in response to Mosaddegh’s policy of nationalizing British oil interests in Iran, a policy that enflamed the ire of British imperialists like Winston Churchill.  President Harry Truman refused to go along with the idea, but President Eisenhower and his foreign-policy team assented, and the plan went forward. 

We serve as spectators as Amirani combs through official documents from the CIA, released only with substantial redactions, and archives compiled over the years by researchers in Europe and America, whom he also interviews.  We watch interviews he conducted with a wide range of people in the know—U.S. agents, British officials, journalists and historians, as well as Iranian witnesses—Mosaddegh’s nephew and grandson, the head of his security detail, a man who was paid to participate in anti-Mosaddegh demonstrations, the royalist son of the general who replaced him as Prime Minister.  He adds to a disturbing account of the coup itself, augmented by animation and recreations, the story of Mosaddegh’s subsequent trial and the long imprisonment that followed, which ended only in his death by cancer in 1967 (an interview with the doctor who diagnosed him is included) and his secret burial beneath the floor of the house he’d been held in.

What Amirani presents as his greatest find, though, is a transcript of an interview with Darbyshire that was apparently conducted for possible inclusion in a 1985 British television program called “End of Empire” but not to be found in it.  Was it filmed and suppressed, and if so, by whom?

Amirani doesn’t let the absence of any film of the Darbyshire interview deter him from including it.  He enlisted Ralph Fiennes to effectively act as the man, reading his printed words as though being queried about the coup and his role in it.  One might question some elements of his recollection, but the tone, as Fiennes captures it, feels absolutely right—a mixture of a smugly imperialist ethos coupled with at an intelligence agent’s pride at understanding how perceptions can be manipulated and apparently catastrophic twists turned into triumphs.  And it’s certainly true that while full British control over Iran’s oil industry wasn’t reestablished, British Petroleum, which emerged in the wake of the coup, received a nice return in the consortium of companies that emerged in the aftermath of the Shah’s return to power. 

“Coup 53” is content to leave some uncertainties about the events it probes hanging in the air; it’s rather like “Citizen Kane” and “Mr. Arkadin,” in which what the investigators found might beat best half the truth, if that.  As edited by veteran Walter Murch, the film is somewhat untidy and occasionally meanders, but that’s an intentional part of the investigatory mosaic it’s creating. 

And it is certainly right in pointing out the profound effect the “cheap and easy” overthrow of Mosaddegh had on U.S. policy in the decades that followed, leading administrations of both parties to attempt similar outcomes in other countries where governments inimical to American economic or ideological interests were to be found.  Of course, ultimately the policy of clandestine regime change proved to have rather serious consequences—witness the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah and has bedeviled the U.S. ever since.

For Amirani, “Coup 53” represents a long-gestating labor of love, answering to his desire to understand the history of his native land.  For the rest of us, it’s a fascinating combination of detective story and historical narrative that demonstrates the process of research into the past and the important conclusions it can reach, even if complete certitude will always elude us.