Here's the rare current-affairs documentary that doesn't just show us something gone wrong in some part of our world. Rachel Boynton's first-rate Big Men instead peels the skin off the world itself, revealing the gears as they grind away, casting familiar documentary scenarios in shades of illuminating gray: The heroes and villains in global business aren't always easy to suss out, but it's never hard to spot the victims.
Her topic is one that you might think you already have the gist of: the effects of international oil companies on the African countries whose resources they suck. But Big Men is no simple screed against tick-like profiteers growing fat on malnourished hosts, which is fine—you either know that story already, or you've chosen to live in denial of it, and no new doc is going to change your thinking.
Big Men is a richly detailed portrait of a small American oil company's quest to begin drilling a deepwater oil field off the coast of Ghana. It's also a richly detailed portrait of Ghana's attempts to lure foreign financiers to help exploit the find—and, after elections install a new populist president running on an anti-corruption platform, of Ghana's determination to not see oil become another gold or cocoa, resources the world has long wrung from the country without its people seeing much benefit.
“Developing nations can't get greedy,” says Jim Musselman, CEO of the Texas-based Kosmos Energy, as he explains why Kosmos won a hugely favorable deal with the government of Ghana. As he sees it, Kosmos, being the first company in, should see greater rewards than the industry standard—it's a start-up taking risks. To his credit, that's the most alarming thing that comes out of his mouth in the movie, despite the impressive access Boynton seems to have been given to Kosmos and its management. He also bristles, hilariously, when a Norwegian tells the Ghanians at a conference that they must aggressively tax whatever foreign company extracts the oil; afterward, he smilingly presses his government contacts. Surely they would only do that to the next company, right?
A banner outside that conference proclaims, “Oil—A Blessing, Not a Curse.” Telling the extraordinary (yet entirely ordinary) tale of disparate parties attempting to secure that blessing for themselves, Boynton scores interviews with kings and presidents, with venture capitalists and gun-toting rebels in the delta region of Niger, a country that serves as nearby Ghana's great cautionary example. In the 50 years of Nigeria's oil boom, some $400 billion have been stolen by corrupt officials. In bracing, upsetting scenes, the masked rebels complain to Boynton that everyone gets rich but them, that the delta is kept in wretched poverty as a matter of practicality—people who are scrambling for the next meal aren't likely to be concerned with which party is highjacking the pipeline.
These militants fire their guns in the air and climb into boats to attack oil infrastructure in a region that suffers from no shortage of spillages and collateral devastation. Late in the film, one admits that the vandalism isn't always principled: A contractor from Shell, he claims, has promised that if there's enough damage done—and, presumably, environmental disaster—that young man could score work on a cleanup crew. The implications sting. From Wall Street to Africa, personal gain triumphs over any idea of the greater good. (Boynton's one misstep: cutting from broke Nigerians arguing about oil to red-black wasps swarming about on a pump.)
There's hope that Ghana might be different. Boynton interviews many officials in the new government, then led by now-deceased president John Atta Mills, who speak passionately about preserving Ghana's wealth for Ghana. “You can live in relative comfort,” Mills promises a crowd in the run-up to the election. That means, of course, getting “greedy,” as Musselman would have it—”They're just as crooked as they can be,” he says of Mills' administration—but not getting as greedy as almost everyone else in the world has. Will Ghana succeed? This film, a great one, demands a follow-up.