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Review: Big Oil & 'Big Men' Collide In Brad Pitt-Produced Documentary About African Oil

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist March 17, 2014 at 6:07PM

While "Big Men" opens with quotes about greed from economist Milton Friedman and the film "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre," it's a line of dialogue from another movie struck me watching Rachel Boynton's documentary: "There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me!" Those are Daniel Plainview's words from Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," and they seem to be the unspoken sentiment that energizes many of the interested parties in "Big Men," a look at how big business, international politics and oil trading has come to bear in Africa, specifically in Nigeria and Ghana. And while that may sound like the kind of premise easily given to a David vs. Goliath approach, Boynton's film is refreshingly complex, with a look at the issue as it goes from the boardrooms of private equity firms all the way down to the militants on the banks of the Niger Delta.
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Big Men

While "Big Men" opens with quotes about greed from economist Milton Friedman and the film "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre," it's a line of dialogue from another movie struck me watching Rachel Boynton's documentary: "There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me!" Those are Daniel Plainview's words from Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," and they seem to be the unspoken sentiment that energizes many of the interested parties in "Big Men," a look at how big business, international politics and oil trading has come to bear in Africa, specifically in Nigeria and Ghana. And while that may sound like the kind of premise easily given to a David vs. Goliath approach, Boynton's film is refreshingly complex, with a look at the issue as it goes from the boardrooms of private equity firms all the way down to the militants on the banks of the Niger Delta.

Spread over the course of several years starting in 2007, "Big Men" pivots around Kosmos Energy, a well-funded startup (raising over $800 million from The Blackstone Group) who have managed to negotiate a claim off the shores of Ghana for the country's first major oil reserve (ironically named Jubilee Field). And while the politics and logistics are as knotty as you might expect, Kosmos' plans are further complicated by Ghana's caution in how they proceed in what could potentially be a life-changing moment for the country. Having seen what has happened in Nigeria, where hundreds of billions of dollars were stolen, wasted and worse from their oil boom, Ghana wants to ensure that their government, and more importantly their citizens, tangibly feel the benefit of what will be a money-generating resource for years to come.

And so Boynton pulls the thread and unravels a tale that gives fair balance to all sides of the equation, while asking a much bigger question about whether or not true human nature is guided by self-preservation (read: greed) or if people can truly act in the greater good. And the answers are surprising. While they might be operating in an industry that has shown time and again a callous regard for anything except profit, Kosmos has surprisingly decent intentions (relatively speaking) and do their best to honor Ghana (though of course, it's in their benefit to do so). Kosmos CEO Jim Musselman initially brokers the deal with Ghana's EO Group for Jubilee, but his soft-footed approach as the process for finalizing agreements with the Ghanian government being to drag, he's perceived as a detriment to the firm, when investors start to panic as the economic crisis sets in. And what about those investors? Do they have a reasonable (or rational) right to expect a return as quickly as possible? Do they not require a proper reward for their risk in developing the oil site? And does it outweigh that of Ghana itself, who are sitting on the resource?

Boynton never deals in simple summation, and those types of queries are left to unfurl on their own with viewers. Meanwhile, the filmmaker takes the audience to compelling corners of this story that is a blueprint for how the business of oil works... or doesn't. The most fascinating footage (which could easily have been a subject of its own documentary) comes from Boynton's visit with militant groups deep in Nigeria. In a system of deeply ingrained corruption, revolt only seems to be through further corruption, with pipelines destroyed by people hired by the contractors who will be called into to clean up. Out of the back door of oil facilities, illegal fuel is funneled into the black market, where it is sold more cheaply than gasoline. In Nigeria, the entire structure has been so corroded by exploitation and fraud that vandalism and theft starts to seem like a reasonable response to the unreasonable situation faced by those left unaided by the wealth flowing into the country.

But that's not what Ghana wants to happen, though whether idealism can trump an industry driven by the titular "big men," who earn that status with money and power, is the battle the country will have to face in the years ahead. And Boynton's intelligent documentary is ultimately a presentation of the players, issues, and structures at all levels—social, economic and beyond—that all have a vested interest in the black gold that lies beneath the surface. "Big Men" weighs the balance of serving the common good v. the needs of commerce and government, understanding that historically this has tipped in favor of the latter. Ghana's fate, and perhaps the future of the whole continent, lie in the balance. [B+]


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