Like a number of recent hot-button docus, from “Crude” to “Inside Job,” Rachel Boynton’s extraordinary “Big Men” should come tagged with a warning: The side effects of global capitalism may include dizziness, nausea and seething outrage. Using razor-sharp journalistic skill to untangle the knotty saga of an American petroleum company’s entrance into the West African republic of Ghana, Boynton’s film also poses a series of troubling philosophical questions: Is unchecked greed an intrinsic part of the human character? Is “the greater good” ever more than a convenient euphemism where big business and big government are concerned? Wide fest exposure and ancillary sales seem assured for this Tribeca world premiere, which also richly deserves a theatrical pickup.
“Big Men” reps Boynton’s first feature docu since her acclaimed 2005 debut, “Our Brand Is Crisis,” which looked wryly upon the intrusion of American political spin doctors (including James Carville) into the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. (The docu was subsequently acquired by George Clooney for a narrative remake.) In her new film, Boynton again charts a fascinating and often fractious collision between First World and Third, beginning with the discovery of a large offshore oil field (named Jubilee Field) 60 kilometers from the Ghana coast. The find is the handiwork of Kosmos Energy, a Texas-based oil startup, which begins rapidly working toward the pumping of “first oil” from the Jubilee site.
We are still in the salad days of 2007, before the Dow — and the price of oil — took their calamitous 2008 tumbles. And Kosmos has a friend in the Ghanaian government, or at least in a hapless go-between, George Owusu, whose local EO Group first obtained the lucrative exploration rights from the Ghanaian national oil company, GNPC, and who literally cold-called Kosmos CEO Jim Musselman while searching for an American backer. Owusu goes on to become one of “Big Men’s” most absorbing and representative characters — a modest man, ill prepared for the machinations of venture-capital America, whose own motives may be less pure than they at first appear. If he didn’t exist, Graham Greene would have had to invent him.
Boynton structures “Big Men” as a series of revealing comparisons and contrasts. While in Ghana, she makes a side trip to nearby Nigeria, a country whose own oil reserves (first discovered in 1956) have been responsible for a vicious cycle of exploitation with little appreciable benefit for the country itself, save for the well-lined pockets of a few bureaucratic fat cats. Boynton even secures access to a group of masked paramilitary rebels who call themselves the “Deadly Underdogs,” who have taken to sabotaging sections of the Nigerian pipeline in an effort to bring attention to the country’s plight. (A bit more terrifying in name than reality, one Deadly Underdog speaks enthusiastically to Boynton about his hope that, by appearing in her film, he might be recognized on the street — no matter that he’s wearing a ski mask.) Still other pirates, we learn, some of them oil company employees, have taken to siphoning off (or “bunkering”) oil from the busted pipeline and reselling it as a low-cost gasoline alternative.
Nigeria becomes the film’s cautionary tale — a vision of what Ghana, without careful government controls, might become. But the film’s most telling juxtaposition is that of Ghana itself — with its dirt roads, colorful tribal couture and low cement buildings — against the steel-and-glass cage of Wall Street (and, specifically, the offices of Kosmos funder the Blackstone Group). The visual textures couldn’t be more different, but what Boynton finds in both locales is surprisingly similar: a merry-go-round of investors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors looking to turn national resources into personal wealth with little regard for collateral damage. Multiple times, the point is made that, because Kosmos spearheaded the research that led to the Jubilee discovery, they expect to receive unusually favorable terms from the government in return. Then a national election ousts Kosmos-sympatico President John Kufuor, and the plot thickens like a pool of bubbling crude. By the time all is said and done, Owusu and Musselman have both found themselves ousted in a mercenary corporate coup.
“Big Men” digs in deep and spins a sprawling tale — a real-life “Chinatown” or “There Will Be Blood” that stretches across five years, all the way up to Kosmos’ 2011 IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Along the way, there are remarkable meetings with tribal kings and captains of industry alike — the aspiring “big men” of the title — who answer Boynton’s tough, smart questions about their (profit) motives, and occasionally turn them back on the filmmaker herself. Would she, after all, be making this film if Jubilee Field had turned out to be barren? Perhaps needless to say, even as the end credits roll, the economic future of Ghana remains shrouded in doubt.
Tech package is uniformly superb, especially Jonathan Furmanski’s crisp HD videography, which captures Jubilee Field in all its imposing majesty and menace, and editor Seth Bomse’s tight structuring of a potentially unwieldy narrative.