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'Big Men,' Doing Big Business In Africa's Oil Fields

The big men at the center of <em>Big Men</em> are public, private and everything in between.
Jonathan Furmanski
The big men at the center of Big Men are public, private and everything in between.

There are three categories of schemers in Big Men, Rachel Boynton's illuminating documentary about the oil business in West Africa: businessmen, politicians and bandits. Sometimes, though, it's hard to tell the types apart.

Filmed over about five years, the movie follows the seesawing fortunes of Kosmos Energy, a small Dallas oil company. Small, that is, by the standards of ExxonMobil, the massive firm that briefly enters the story as a potential partner. At one of its high points, Kosmos was valued at $6 billion, which is enough money to attract attention, especially in an impoverished land.

Kosmos' principal asset is a lease for Jubilee Field, an oil reserve off the coast of previously undrilled Ghana. When Boynton's tale opens in 2007, oil futures are regularly hitting new highs, and Kosmos CEO Jim Musselman is on great terms with his well-connected Ghanaian intermediary, George Owusu.

That connection is necessary because Ghana's oil officially belongs to the country. Such a system can work if the government does. At a conference hosted by the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation, Norway's oil minister explains how his country claims much of oil drillers' profits for the public good. (Musselman claps politely, but looks pained.)

For every Norway, however, there's a Nigeria. Boynton paid multiple visits to that country, the world's 12th largest petroleum producer. There, oil fuels tribal and religious strife, and leaves the landscape blackened and burning. Among the groups that pillage the local extraction industry is a sort of Niger Delta street gang called the Deadly Underdogs.

Back in Dallas, everyone's upbeat until another Texan, George W. Bush, presides over an economic crash. And while oil prices plummet, the Ghanaian president that Musselman has been cultivating loses his reelection bid. Furthermore, it's beginning to look like Kosmos will be charged under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Suddenly, Musselman no longer looks smart, and the New York investors on the company's board of directors want him out. Because the writer-director followed Kosmos for so long, however, we get to watch yet another bounce in its fortunes.

The writer-director also books a return trip to Nigeria, where the environment is still degraded, but the Deadly Underdogs have gone mainstream. They no longer wear masks for on-camera interviews.

If there's a problem with the documentary, it's that the link between Ghana and Nigeria seems tenuous. The countries are geographically close, and both have oil. But Ghana is more stable, and less likely to experience Nigerian-style small-time petroleum piracy, if only because its deposits are offshore.

Big Men opens with a quotation from Milton Friedman, the bard of free-marketeering. Yet Boynton doesn't offer a political interpretation of the events she documents, preferring to let Musselman, Owusu and the others talk.

Remarkably enough, they do. There's even a candid interview with Jeffrey Harris, the Kosmos board chairman who represented the hedge funds and investment banks that capitalized the offshore venture. Such big men, like the smaller operators in Nigeria, seek financial reward. But they also crave to be to be seen as important and successful.

That's the link between Musselman, in his vast ranch house outside Dallas, Harris, in his Manhattan skyscraper, and the Deadly Underdogs, in their Niger Delta shanties. They all want money, and they all spell it r-e-s-p-e-c-t. (Recommended)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.