“Coup 53”: Film Review

A chirpy and entertaining film about a dark story with terrible consequences, “Coup 53” is charmingly didactic yet raises the question: what is documentary film for?

Filmmaker Taghi Amirani – known for his lively “We Are Many” – delves into the history of the country of his birth, Iran. He recounts the tortuous way in which its course was irrevocably altered through US and British interference in the early 1950s, when the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh was overthrown. The removal, codenamed Operation TPAjax by the US and Operation Boot by Britain, marked a new development in the US’s pursuit of its Cold War aims.

The background to Mossadegh’s removal has long been known but had lacked, in part, precise substantiation. In 2017, years after leaks to the New York Times and public aknowledgement of US involvement – first by US Secretary of State Albright in 2000 and later by President Obama in 2009 – the US State Department released key papers covering the years 1951 to 1954. Much of what had been in the shadows came to light, revealing thought processes that had led to a shift, less in policy and more in method.

This belated openness does not seem to have been officially mirrored by the UK, even though much of the relevant information is and has been in the public domain for decades, in good part through the UK’s Public Record Office, as a 2001 research article by Ervand Abrahamian (who appears in the film) attests. It is this that is the object of the film’s pursuit. Amirani brings to his beautifully crafted story of regime change something of an air of a ‘murder-mystery’, as he hunts through archives for a smoking gun: a missing contributor to Granada Television’s 1985 documentary series “End of Empire”.

The series’ executive producer Brian Lapping had commented in an article for History Today in the early 1990s that “recent publications, particularly the memoirs of C.M. Woodhouse, provided the leads which would enable us to go further than any previous historians or journalists in describing British involvement in the coup that overthrew Mussadiq”. Woodhouse, a British MP in the early to mid-1960s, had earlier fought with the S.O.E during World War II, supporting the Greek resistance, and was later a British agent active in Iran, eventually revealing his role in the 1953 events.

“Coup 53” is a whodunit, and it unveils its ‘who’ as a British agent who preceded Woodhouse in Iran and had been interviewed for “End of Empire” – a contribution that “Coup 53” alleges later suspiciously disappeared from both the broadcast version of “End of Empire” and from its production archives.  This has not been corroborated by the makers of “End of Empire”, and in August 2020, The Guardian newspaper published a note accompanying a review of “Coup 53”, stating that “the producers of End of Empire maintain it was never intended for the MI6 agent to appear on camera”.

This absence is “Coup 53″’s central narrative plank but possibly also its weakness. In this, it is more a campaigning than a history documentary, and as a result perhaps offers more a promise of moral certainty to its viewers than a springboard for historical enquiry.

Director Taghi Amirani
Writers Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch
With Ralph Fiennes, Taghi Amirani, Walter Murch, Ervand Abrahamian

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