*** out of **** (Three out of Four Stars) (Amirani Media)
A movie which will go far in explaining Mideast politics from the 1950s to the present day, "Coup 53" is a history lesson rich in detail but is often times lacking in narrative efficiency.
If all you want is a tutorial, it's superb, but even fans of the generally dry documentary genre want something which doesn’t stray too far off-topic and from that perspective, the movie falls just a tad short.
Although all of the facts are now well known, the events both in public and behind-the-scenes of the 1953 Iranian coup were long kept a secret to U.S. citizens and it wasn’t until 2000 where some details were revealed.
It wasn't until 2017 when all of the pieces of the puzzle finally came together.
This was about the time when director Taghi Amirani walked into the U.S. National Security Achieve and was given access to documents which the CIA and its’ British counterpart (MI6) would probably want kept buried.
It all started in 1951 when the Shah — under tremendous parliamentary pressure – named the immensely popular Mohammed Mosaddegh has the country’s Prime Minister. This was a watershed event not only for Iran — a country which was at the time an effective British colony – but for the type of global democracy the U.S. had been pushing since the end of World War II. So big was this news, Time Magazine named Mosaddegh its’ 1951 Man of the Year.
Had Mosaddegh left the status quo undisturbed, he would have likely become an iconic global statesman for the ages and perhaps the most famous Iranian in history. Instead, Mosaddegh nationalized the country’s oil fields, effectively displacing British Petroleum (BP) which had been in charge of the country’s fossil-fuel production since 1913.
With the single stroke of a pen, Mosaddegh became a hero to his countrymen and the mortal enemy to practically every high-ranking government official in the western world. Rightfully fearing for his life, the immensely-disliked Shah split the scene, eventually finding refuge in a swanky hotel in Rome and waited in the wings while others in power in distant foreign lands saw to the often unsavory details.
One thing that becomes immediate clear — Amirani - a long time TV director making only his second feature film — is deeply and personally invested in the material.
This is understandable as he is a native Iranian who lived through most of what takes place in the film but this also makes him something of a distraction.
Depending on your own tastes, this lends the film a more heartfelt and immediate air but also results in softening the desired impact. Amirani never strays into the typical Michael Moore level of "look at me" grandstanding and was wise to bring in legend Walter Murch as his co-writer and editor.
With the possible exception of Thelma Schoonmaker, the three-time Oscar-winner Murch ("The Godfather" , "The Godfather Part II", "Apocalypse Now", "The English Patient" , and "Cold Mountain" ) is the most respected of all living film editors. Murch lends the production a welcomed, unemotional, lived-in feel by seamlessly blending news reels, stock photos, and weathered BBC TV footage, resulting in a marked live-action narrative flow rarely experienced in documentaries.
Arguably the most interesting character in the film is Norman Darbyshire, a deceased MI6 agent who was integral in the coup and whose previously filmed interviews have vanished.
In another move which could be viewed as either enhancing or distractive, Amirani cast actor Ralph Fiennes to read transcripts of Darbyshire’s interviews.
Fiennes does so at the historical Savoy Hotel in London where the original interviews were conducted but no attempt is made to make him look anything like the man he’s portraying.
Fiennes shows up in street clothes without make-up and, while more than convincing from an audio perspective, the visuals kind of rob these passages of a certain level of authenticity.
It would have worked far better had Fiennes been dressed and made-up to look like Darbyshire or remained off-screen with his voice accompanying still images of Darbyshire (think any Ken Burns film). This in itself is not enough to kill the overall impact of the story but it is something which should have been reconsidered prior to filming.
Coincidentally, the release date of this film is shared with that of “Desert One,” another documentary which goes into deep detail of events that transpired in Iran after those in "Coup 53" have concluded and the two movies serve as perfect bookends to each other.
Please check back here tomorrow for my review of “Desert One.”
"Coup 53" is now available to stream at coup53.com.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here."
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