As a population, Americans are probably the least historically-informed citizenry in the world community. This is particularly true when it comes to the various foreign policy machinations of the US government in the twentieth century. We know next to nothing of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, supposedly “anti-Communist” interventions in Southeast and East Asia or themuscular attempts at regime change various arms of the US government has attempted around the world. Even regarding more recent events, our lack of information is appalling: look no further than the rehabilitation of President W. Bush, the man who invaded Iraq. This is a decidedly US-American pathology, as most of the rest of the world population can readily number off a litany of US foreign policy debacles and explain their causes and consequences.

This historical ignorance is the premise for the new documentary, Coup 53. The film traces the August 1953 US-British coup which ousted the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. Much of the film is given over to providing basic journalistic-level information: the who, what, when, and where of events. Because Americans are so uninformed about our past, this more elementary level of analysis is necessary and provides the background knowledge that allows Coup 53’s more significant revelations to come through.

Specifically about those revelations, in the process of researching Coup 53, writer-director Taghi Amirani stumbled upon an MI6 operative making a shocking admission about his extensive participation in the coup. The US has confessed to its central role in the coup, but the British have always denied that they were involved. It is not hard to imagine that the US was the sole culprit: Mossadegh nationalized Iranian oil (like a Communist!), did not squash the Communist Tudeh party (like a closeted Communist!) and, after 1953, the US would begin engineering similar coups all over the world without British assistance. But it has never sat right with either historians or Iranians that the British were not included in the coup against Mossadegh; it was British oil infrastructure, after all, that Mossadegh had seized and the British who had expertise and experience in the Persian Gulf.

What Coup 53 discovered was a bizarre, way-too-honest interview that MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire gave to a British television crew for a miniseries on the eclipse of the British Empire in the ‘80s. The transcript for the interview shows Darbyshire claiming not only a prominent role in the coup’s planning and execution, but the leadership position. But here’s the thing about the Darbyshire interview: it never ran in the TV miniseries. No video record of the interview exists. Amirani gets in touch with the film crew of the miniseries—the research, director and cameraman—and none of them remember who conducted the interview or whether it was ever filmed. But the interview happened, and Amirani has the transcript. The British were undeniably definitive participants in the 1953 coup against Mossadegh.

Because of the strange nature of the Darbyshire interview, Coup 53 takes a turn and becomes a much more clever and engaging documentary than a straightforward historical accounting of the coup would be. Amirani becomes not just the filmmaker, but a prominent protagonist of his own film. It is less like Michael Moore and more like Jafar Panahi, a sort of meta-textual exploration of the documentary form. The culmination of this fourth-wall-breaking style comes when Amirani decides that, even if the actual Darbyshire interview tapes do not exist, he wants to include a recorded version of the Darbyshire interview in Coup 53. He restages the interview, finding an excellent and famous British actor—no spoilers here, and anyone who wants to watch the film should avoid discovering his identity—to impersonate Darbyshire and read verbatim the agent’s words from the transcript.

This lends Coup 53 an energy and an unpredictability that is generally lacking in these sorts of documentaries. Again, the original premise of the film was the fact that people in the US are ahistorical dolts who know nothing about the world. But, usually in such films, for anyone who is informed, the documentary becomes a bit rote: after all, an informed viewer already knows Mossadegh was removed, the Shah took over for him and founded a torturing secret service that sowed the seeds of the 1979 Revolution and Mossadegh died after a miserable decade under house arrest. But Coup 53, because of the search for and ultimate recreation of the Darbyshire interview, moves beyond a generic story of how we got from Point A to Point B. It informs the ignorant masses and entertains those who already know the story.

Summary
Coup 53 is less like Michael Moore and more like Jafar Panahi, a sort of meta-textual exploration of the documentary form.
68 %
A spy-movie documentary
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