Big Men: Chasing Oil (and Finding Corruption) in Nigeria and Ghana

Big Men

Opens Fri., April 18 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 99 minutes.

When was the last time you rooted for an oilman? Drill, baby, drill! That’s one of the odd sensations in watching Rachel Boynton’s deeply reported documentary, which reaches from the 2007 oil discovery in the coastal waters off Ghana to the first pumping of crude some four years later. If you’ve read Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, Big Men will be fascinating for its MBA-level study of global petro-politics. Boynton sets a contrast between the “resource curse” of Nigeria, where corruption, graft, and insurrection in the Niger River delta are rampant, and the more open field of Ghana, its smaller neighbor to the west. Jim Musselman, CEO of Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, warns of “the Nigeria model” after tapping Ghana’s Jubilee Field, which will eventually give his Wall Street–backed company a valuation north of $4 billion.

Before that IPO, however, Boynton goes deep into the weeds with her extremely well-sourced and –accessed account. Musselman and his corporate peers allow her into the boardroom; she’s ferried by helicopter to offshore drilling rigs; and she goes on ride-alongs with the AK-47-waving Desperate Underdogs militia of the Niger Delta, whose raids and pipeline attacks are more cynical than they seem. We also see the flaming well spouts and impoverished Nigerians smuggling dangerous black-market fuel for vehicles they could never afford. Politicians come and go, and Kosmos suffers its own coup d’etat.

I won’t say that Boynton (Our Brand Is Crisis) shrinks from hard questions, but her terms of access keep her friendly and fair to all parties. You learn a lot from Big Men (whose producers include Brad Pitt), though not much of it is new or surprising. Should we feel more optimistic about Ghana’s petro-windfall? Is the country more tribally homogenous and stable than Nigeria? And what’s the price of oil today, as affected by events in Nigeria, Ghana, or Ukraine? Even if it lags a little behind the times, Big Men forces you to consider such questions at the pump.

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