Movie review: Documentary ‘Coup 53’ unfolds like a thriller
You can buy a lot for $60,000, even an entire country and its political system. That’s how much U.S. taxpayers footed for a violent takeover of Iran that wound up costing us millions in terms of dollars and human lives many years on. That’s just one of the fascinating tidbits emerging from “Coup 53,” Taghi Amirani’s 10-years-in-the-making documentary chronicling a joint British-U.S. endeavor to overthrow Iran’s “Gandhi” and replace him with the now infamous Shah.
It’s hardly shocking that the impetus was oil and cash, both readily extracted at the expense of the Iranian people. What is surprising is how Great Britain has managed to keep its significant involvement in the coup quiet for more than 65 years. Not anymore. Amirani sees to that via intense muckraking leading him to damning documents and testimony long kept under wraps. At the center of the coup was a British spy right out of a John Le Carre novel. His name: Norman Darbyshire. What? You were expecting James Bond?
After watching “Coup 53,” it’s clear the ruthless Darbyshire could eat 007 for lunch. No wonder the British government has been so vigilant in attempting to keep quiet all references to Darbyshire and his involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s rightfully elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, aka the Persian Gandhi. The thrill of “Coup 53” is Amirani’s dogged search for proof of Darbyshire’s role in both the assassination of Mosaddegh chief of police, Mahmoud Afshartous, and the violent uprising of Aug. 19, 1953, that chased the prime minister from his residence to clear the path for Shah Mohammad Pahlavi to seize control and assure the continued exploitation of the nation’s chief natural resource by U.S. and British interests.
That would be petroleum. The fight to own it was both crude and oily, as “Coup 53” gifts in concise deliberate terms. The crusher is the direct testimony Darbyshire made before BBC-TV cameras back in the early 1980s as part of a multipart documentary titled “End of Empire.” But a review of the series by Amirani reveals no trace of Darbyshire, only written notes left behind by the makers of the show. Even those are heavily redacted. But, like magic, Amirani scores an unedited copy and asks Oscar-winner Ralph Fiennes to act out the full testimony.
Sounds dumb, but darned if it doesn’t work. The words are damning for both the CIA and MI-6, more so for those organizations’ respective leaders, President Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. What they wrought in the name of oil will turn out to have huge implications on the world order, including providing the spark that would ignite territorial wars and terrorism throughout the Middle East. The fact that the entire operation cost the U.S. a mere $60,000 and zero American lives was all the motivation Eisenhower needed to go forward with similar imperialistic moves in such out-of-the-way places as Congo, Guatemala and a little country called Vietnam.
And therein lay the film’s power in how it shows how a short-term gain, albeit via dirty tricks, can result in reverberations sure to echo for decades following, including the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis that cost Jimmy Carter his presidency and the lives of eight U.S. special forces on a botched rescue mission. Might that tragedy have been a sort of karmic retribution for what the U.S. did to Iran back in 1953? Amirani leaves it up to you to decide, but it’s hard to think otherwise. Thus proving that $60,000 might have bought us and Great Britain a country and its oil, but we wound up paying for it with decades of misery, embarrassment and death.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A documentary by Taghi Amirani featuring Ralph Fiennes. Streaming on all platforms beginning Aug. 21.