It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
If you want to see the ugly side of capitalism, one place you are sure to get a glimpse is anywhere established First World economies interact with Third World economies. That's where the drive for profit above all else is unhindered by a fully developed system of laws and regulations. In "Big Men", Rachel Boynton offers a case study in how the promise of big wealth brings out the ruthless self-interest of all the parties concerned. Along the way, she raises larger questions that lift this doc above being a simple lecture on how greed is bad and big oil is evil, making it into something with more heft.
The doc follows the key players in the massive Jubilee oil field discovered off the coast of Ghana. Jim Musselman, the president of Kosmos Energy, is a strapping Texan with ranching in his blood who turned to oil exploration. As the doc begins, in 2007, his company has made the discovery of a lifetime. The Jubilee field promises to make someone very, very rich. The question is who will reap the benefits. Will it be Musselman and his tiny company, which takes high risks in oil exploration in hopes of a big return like Jubilee? Will it be George Owusu, the local agent hired to promote Kosmos' interests in Ghana? Will it be the government of Ghana? Will it be the already rich and powerful of Ghana, skimming off the profits for themselves? Or will Ghana, seeing the example of how oil has ruined nearby Nigeria, follow a more enlightened path and find ways to raise the quality of life of the poor of Ghana? And what will happen when the oil boom, in high gear in 2007, hits the economic meltdown?
As the film began, I will admit I thought I knew pretty much where Boynton was heading: Big oil bad, corrupt government bad, profit-sharing with the poor good but unlikely. And that's certainly the general trajectory here. The rich find new and novel ways to screw over the poor, but also each other. It's rather dazzling when the Kosmos Board of Directors lose faith in Musselman and fire him, and he gets a bit more blunt and honest on camera about how everyone involved is ready to throw anyone under the bus to increase their share. Of course, the delicious irony is that Musselman is saying all this just minutes after we've seen him throw George Owusu, the Ghanian agent, under the bus in an international investigation of corrupt business practices.
And frankly, Boynton's inclusion of substantial footage of Nigeria feels like a move necessary to the civics lesson rather than a natural outgrowth of the story she is telling. Yes, Nigeria offers a cautionary tale about how badly managed oil development and a corrupt government can lead to increased poverty and a social and ecological disaster. But it also feels a bit forced, as if Boynton is setting the poor desperate rebels of Nigeria into a didactic opposition to the Big Oil players she has been following.
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