Thursday, August 14, 2014

TV Review | Big Men

They Might Be Giants

The PBS documentary 'Big Men' is a refined, methodical probe into wildcatting capitalism and corporate neo-colonialism.

If there was gold in them thar hills, there must be black gold in them thar oceans.

That might have been the operating motto powering Texas-based Kosmos Energy when it went drilling for petroleum off the coast of Ghana a decade ago. In 2007, they hit a gusher, tapping into a huge oil reserve—now the aptly named Jubilee field—leaving Kosmos-nauts as well as Ghanaians with visions of barrels of petro-dollars dancing in their heads.

But before Ghanaians and their government fantasize about their own colorized remake of the Beverly Hillbillies in the Sahel, they only need look next door to Nigeria to see what happens when a poor, undeveloped African nation strikes it big in oil: There will be blood... as well as greed, corruption and war.

In the new season of PBS’ award-winning POV documentary series, filmmaker Rachel Boynton’s Big Men (Monday, Aug. 25) stands lean and tall, digging into a cautionary tale that merges Fortune magazine with Joseph Conrad at his grimiest. The end product is a refined, methodical probe into wildcatting capitalism and corporate neo-colonialism, but one that nonetheless runs a little dry in bedrock analysis.

Boynton takes her cameras and crew from the streets of Ghana and the deltas of Nigeria to the slick boardrooms of New York City; from America’s entrepreneurial one-percenters to Africa’s wretched of the earth. Shot over five years, her 95-minute chronicle is a hefty accomplishment, giving viewers a multifaceted, fly-on-the-wall probe into how the gears of 21st-century Third World turbo-capitalism work—and the grease that keeps it all running.

If Boynton has a protagonist, besides Ghana itself, it’s Bill Musselman, a straight-shooting, old-school oilman who spearheaded Kosmos’ African explorations as CEO. The upside to Boynton’s considerable access to Musselman and other Kosmos execs is their chatty, off-the-cuff comments; the downside is the relative rarity of provocative questions or research that dig deeper than her objective style permits. Yet for all of Musselman’s amiability— even when Wall Street bears begin biting in Great Recession 2009—he revealingly spouts off when a Norwegian official argues that the best way to prevent Ghana from being exploited is to heavily tax the multinational drillers. Like any good free-marketer in our regressively Ayn Randian era, Musselman views taxes as bad business, if not sludge.

At the beginning of Big Men, Boynton quotes U.S. capitalism high priest (or witchdoctor) Milton Friedman, who sermonized that the “world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.” The Chicago School economist scarcely qualified his “I got mine” mantra, but Boynton pours out examples of the destructive absurdities of such a crude individualist credo. We’re taken to oil-rich Nigeria, where greedy and corrupt elites have so wildly pursued their interests at the expense of their country that they’ve created a brutally stratified, stagnant land of haves and have-nots. This is a place where the destitute villagers secretly sabotage pipelines just to be hired back to repair them, and where armed militants in ski masks set hellish fires to oil refineries. (It’s also worth mentioning that Nigeria is where poverty and despair ignited the barbaric Islamic backlash of Boco Haram.)

Big Men’s title comes from an observation of a Ghanaian tribal leader who says that “everybody wants to become a big man" and get fat from a diet of oil money. The ultimate question that Boynton poses is if Ghana can break the Nigerian (and Mideast) mold by democratically sharing the wealth from its share of that oil money—some $444 million in 2011 alone.

But the deeper question, and not only for Ghanaians, is who exactly owns the Earth’s diminishing natural resources, and how much they should profit by them. Musselman and venture capitalist Jeffrey Harris claim that the great risks involved in exploring for oil justifies their enormous takes on the back end. But what’s the bottom line and who really pays when a corporation (BP, anyone?) recklessly befouls our precious waterways and coasts for generations to come? And don’t the Jubilee field and discoveries like it just keep gasoline relatively cheap, prolonging our bottomless addiction to fossil fuels and the amoral corporate pushers that pump them?

The answers from Big Men are sizeable but they don’t always measure up to the well of questions Boynton implicitly raises. To wit, how’s this for a toxic gusher: Kosmos Energy CEO Brian Maxted was a monstrously big man in 2011, fueled by $58 million in salary and stock options.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Film Review | The Kill Team

Improvised Explosive Devices  

In 2009, when Army PFC Andrew Holmes saw his first combat action in Afghanistan, his immediate thought was of the over-the-top, gung-ho heroics of Top Gun, capped with the strains of “Danger Zone” ricocheting in his head.

Dizzying jump cut to six years later: Holmes has no medals, no trophies and not even a kiss from Kelly McGillis. Found guilty in a military court, along with other members of his notorious “Kill Team” platoon in the murders of unarmed Afghan civilians, Holmes is currently serving a seven-year sentence in Leavenworth prison.

How Holmes, Adam Winfield and Jeremy Morlock spiraled down from front-line U.S. warriors to disgraced war criminals is the main mission behind The Kill Team, a brief, choppy but incendiary documentary that registers yet another tragic beat in the American heart of darkness during the post-9/11 era.

With director Dan Krauss doing triple duty as producer and cinematographer (as well as editor and co-writer), The Kill Team is nearly a one-man operation, and the stitches in this postmortem sometimes show. Krauss trains his sights primarily on Specialist Adam Winfield, once a proud member of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Bravo Company, stationed in Kandahar province from 2009 to 2010. You won’t get the big picture of the decade-long U.S. counter-terrorism war in Afghanistan; rather, Krauss’ closeup cinema-verité campaign is to embed himself into the lives of Winfield and his distraught parents, Chris and Emma, as the military begins its murder trial against their son in Fort Lewis, WA. For background ammunition, Krauss drops in footage captured from the soldiers’ camcorders while on patrol as well as from Winfield’s actual 2010 Army interrogation.

Baby-faced, soft-spoken and slight of frame, Winfield hardly fits the profile of a macho, battle-tested veteran. A patriotic idealist when he joined the Army at age 17 (“I loved being in the military”), while echoing his father’s Marine footsteps he soon discovered that the Army wasn’t at all like those glorified Be All You Can Be commercial come-ons. Winfield and his fellow soldiers experienced firsthand the damning disconnect between the military’s historic search-and-destroy raison d’être and the ambitious, yet perhaps impossible mission of nation-building— this in a desolate tribal country mired in the Middle Ages. Faced with the collateral foes of boredom and frustration, Bravo Company went medieval itself in short order. “This sucks... a lot,” we hear a disgusted Winfield say on patrol.

In a déjà vu flashback to the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, Bravo Company had to contend with elusive Taliban guerrillas nearly impossible to pin down, nerve-racking daily threats from roadside bombs, as well as indifferent and suspicious, if not outright hostile, villagers. But what really lit the fuse in the squad was the entrance of Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a burly Iraq veteran who was, by most accounts, a Rambo-esque psycho. In only one of Gibbs’ kick-ass pathologies, his idea of R&R was fashioning a ghastly bone necklace made from the fingers of enemy dead.

You don’t need to be a military (or movie) historian to flashback to Oliver Stone’s 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Platoon, in which  young Army recruit Charlie Sheen is divided in his loyalties to his two sergeants—a ruthless Tom Berenger and the altruistic, Christ-like Willem Dafoe. But in Krauss’ grimly un-Hollywood war story, there was no casting call for Gibbs’ counterpart. Bravo Company’s soul was lost to the sergeant’s savage scheme and conspiracy to rack up kills, even if it meant planting evidence (using “drop weapons”) on innocent civilians, and then claiming self-defense.

A classic sociopathic bully, Gibbs uniformly cowed his squad into going along and falling in place with his savage schemes. Most got a rush out of the blood lust, especially back at the base, where they were greeted as “heroes” and "made men." But at least one soldier initially disobeyed orders and couldn’t stomach the Kool-Aid. That was SPC Winfield, who in early 2010 began e-mailing his father in distress, pleading, “I want to do something about it.”

The rest of Winfield’s nightmare war story is a long gray line of military screw-ups, treachery and scapegoating. Of all the images in The Kill Team, perhaps none is as tragic or ironic as that of the manacled Winfield in his camouflage fatigues, ruefully telling his account to Krauss’ camera. There are other voices equally as expressive—like that of Morlock, serving a 24-year sentence—but Winfield commands attention, if only because he sounds so earnest, even heartbreaking.

In the interminable war on terrorism filled with such blowback disasters as Abu Ghraib, “enhanced interrogation,” and the Iraq invasion in toto, how can the U.S. government even think about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people when it can’t even win those of its own soldiers?