Genre: Spy / Historical
Premise: A determined American spy develops an outrageous plan to overthrow the fragile democracy of Iran in 1953, at the request of the company that would become known as BP.
About: I haven’t heard anything about this getting adapted so far, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t on a development board somewhere.
Writer: Kinzer is a veteran New York Times correspondent who has written plenty of books about U.S. dirty dealings overseas. This book became an unexpected hit in 2003, as U.S. efforts in the Middle East fell about apart and people started getting more serious about the question “Why do they hate us?” Unfortunately, it’s gotten even more timely since, due to the BP connection.
The two biggest stories in the news this week are about the environmental horrorshow in the Gulf of Mexico and America’s latest attempt to impose sanctions on the theocratic government of Iran. But most people won’t realize the connection between the two stories: the misadventures of the company then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and now known as BP. “All the Shah’s Men” is a crackerjack little real-world spy thriller that also happens to reveal how the U.S. became embroiled in the Middle East, how Iran lost its democratic government in the first place, and how BP lost the original source of its oil.
I know that, by the numbers, this sounds like too much of a long shot, given the current taboo against topical movies, but everyone who reads it says “Man, this would make a great movie!” Kinzer is one of our most cinematic non-fiction writers. He has a real talent for discovering larger-than-life personalities and finding the little moments that illuminate their characters. This book is full of deadpan-hilarious moments and “oh hell no” plot turns.
The structure is classically cinematic:
The Inciting Incident: Lifelong reformer Mohammed Mossadeq gets elected and demands that BP start paying Iran a more reasonable price for its oil, like maybe 50% of the profits instead of 5%. Instead, BP asks Britain to re-occupy the country. The British refuse, so BP asks America to do it instead. The CIA is all-too-happy to get on board.
Enter the compelling anti-hero: Brilliant CIA man Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy, seems like a cool-blooded preppie at first, but he reveals hidden depths, strengths and motivations along the way. Finally, he has to go against orders to win when everyone else had given up. There’s a great moment early on where he gets out of trouble in a way that reveals his conflicted relationship to his background (and shows Kinzer’s talent for ironic little character moments):
Iranian agents who came in and out of Roosevelt’s villa [while he was plotting the coup in Tehran] knew him only by his pseudonym, James Lockridge. As time passed, they naturally developed a sense of comradeship, and some of the Iranians, much to Roosevelt’s amusement, began calling him “Jim”. The only times he came close to blowing his cover were during tennis games that he played regularly at the Turkish embassy. When he missed a shot, he would curse himself, shouting, “Oh, Roosevelt!” Several times he was asked why someone named Lockridge would have developed such a habit. He replied that he was a passionate Republican and considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to have been so evil that used Roosevelt’s name as a curse.
The boo-hiss villain: Unfortunately for Kermit, he’s working to install a buffoon. Reza Shah Pahlevi is presented as a jet-set international playboy who only wants to make out with American movie stars. He’s an endless source of comedy and conflict.
Trying to do it the easy way until disaster strikes at the midpoint: Roosevelt starts off planning a classic overthrow by bribing a number of generals. Everything seems to go swimmingly, but the night of the coup, the generals pounce only to be arrested themselves by their own unexpectedly loyal men. Instead of taking power, the Shah panics and flees the country, back to fun and sun in the Riviera.
The second half of act two, a.k.a. finding the special weapon in the cave: It’s at this point that Roosevelt ignores ambiguous orders to terminate the mission and instead strikes out on his own. He discovers the Rashidian brothers, a trio of colorful criminals who are happy to help him work his mischief in more imaginative ways. They pay circus performers to stage phony riots, some of which seem to be pro-Mossadeq and some that seem anti-Mossadeq, giving the general impression of chaos, which quickly leads to real riots. Kermit tries to control the beast he’s created while using it to convince his bosses and the Shah to re-commit.
The climax: Just when Kermit seems to have told too many lies to too many people, it all snaps together at the last minute and the players converge back in Tehran for a massive battle in the streets. His strategy is validated spectacularly.
The ironic twist: For BP the irony came right away. After America took over, we informed BP that we wouldn’t be giving them their old contracts back, after all. By the time the new regime was done divvying up the spoils, BP got 50% of the profits, the same percentage Mossadeq was offering them. For America, the irony came later, when anti-Shah forces resurged, but this time in a decidedly anti-democratic, anti-American way. Mullahs take over in 1979, kicking foreign interests and money out once and for all.
Are Americans ever going to want to see movies about the Middle East? Eventually, but it’ll take a while. During the actual Vietnam War, that subject was taboo in movie theaters. Three years after that war was over, there was a brief eruption of Vietnam movies in 1978, then the backlash took over again. Finally, in 1987, as veterans began getting some clout themselves, there were a bunch of great movies made on the topic. When tempers have cooled, America will be ready for movies about our misadventures in the over there, and someone will hopefully do a great adaptation of this book.
Matt Bird talks about screenwriting, underrated movies and other random topics over at Cockeyed Caravan [CockeyedCaravan.blogspot.com]