With Coup 53, director Taghi Amirani follows a ‘more is better’ philosophy in his style of documentary filmmaking. Every conceivable stylistic choice is employed to tell the true story – one of British complicity in the 1953 coup in Iran – of the deposition of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh. In a style which parallels the director’s own enthusiasm and energy, Coup 53 seems to be the product of ‘button mashing’ in the editing room. The final product is disorderly, which is unsurprising given the film’s unnecessarily wide remit.
Unveiling MI6 involvement in Operation Ajax is quickly presented as one of Amirani’s objectives – the first of too many. Through extensive research, Amirani arrives at interview transcripts conducted in the 1960s for the BBC’s End of Empire docuseries. Coup 53 gathers momentum when Amirani discovers that MI6 officer Norman Darbyshire featured heavily in a preview of the episode on Iran but was scrubbed from the version that eventually aired. Curiously, no audio or visual evidence exists of the apparently illuminating interview with Darbyshire, and Amirani has access to only a redacted copy of the transcript because of the way interviews were edited in the 60s. The mystery is gripping.
That is until Amirani declares that he suddenly has the full interview in hand and, with the help of Ralph Fiennes (in perhaps his strangest role to date), can now bring to life Darbyshire’s original words. The answer to the important question regarding British involvement comes quickly: Darbyshire’s extensive and detailed interview responses support theories of British involvement in the events of 1953. Roll credits.
But Amirani is far from finished. Once British complicity is effectively confirmed, the film becomes a standard historical documentary of the events surrounding the coup. This draws the runtime out to an unnecessary 118 minutes. The first 45 minutes could be envisioned as a compelling TV documentary had it not been for the whistle-stop tour of events that unfurls in the second hour.
What furthers the sense of exhaustion from Coup 53 is the stylistic incoherence of the production. There are simply too many elements: footage from Amirani’s cell phone tracks the discoveries of his investigation and his meetings; only the strangely flashback-like talking heads are framed with imposing black bars; and an elaborate, yet handsomely executed, animation sequence depicts the events in Tehran in 1953. Coup 53 doubles as a documentary following Amirani’s revelatory research and a comprehensive walkthrough of the events surrounding the coup. It ought not to have tried covering both.
Coup 53 begins with its director showing us how he has been committed to this subject matter for over a decade and how passionate he is to uncover the true history of his home country. We are left with the thought of imagining a world in which Mossadegh (Time magazine’s 1951 ‘Man of the Year’) wasn’t ousted in 1953. What would Iran look like today had its democracy been left to flourish? What would this mean for the rest of the Middle Eastern region? There’s a tragic lamentation over hope snuffed out which makes a film like Coup 53 so personally necessary. But Amirani’s jigsaw puzzle of ideas and information isn’t solved, but rather left in a mystifying heap and delivered to the projector room. This is a fierce effort that met too many bumps in the road to reach its target.