Big Men: Tribeca Review

Dry look at drilling in Africa explains some corporate dynamics but leaves key issues unresolved

The Ghana-focused doc is culled from surprising access to the inner workings of an oil deal worth billions.

NEW YORK — Drawing back the curtain on the kind of mega-deals most viewers hardly try to comprehend, Rachel Boynton's Big Men looks at the discovery of oil off the coast of Ghana and the consequences it has or may have on Ghanaians and the foreign businessmen involved. Despite its successful attempts to show how oil has affected everyday citizens in nearby Nigeria, the film remains fairly dry and will be a harder sell than Boynton's debut doc, Our Brand is Crisis.

Starting her interviews in 2007, Boynton focuses on Kosmos Energy, a tiny company whose genial Texan CEO, Jim Musselman, is making the rounds -- with the king of the Ashanti people, with Ghana's president John Agyekum Kufuor, and so on -- talking up the mutual wealth oil is about to bring them. She introduces George Owusu, whose Ghana-based EO Group serves as a liaison with government officials, and some of the private equity execs who have invested hundreds of millions in Kosmos's search for oil.

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While these gentlemen discuss the relationship between risk and reward and reaffirm the benefits that petro-wealth will bring the people of Ghana, Boynton finds a very different scenario in Nigeria. There, the average citizen is worse off than when oil was discovered decades ago; neighboring communities have become enemies. Mask-wearing militants break open and set fire to some pipelines, officials steal oil from others, and youths risk their lives peddling highly flammable condensate fuels on the black market.

The time Boynton invests establishing Kosmos's corporate family tree pays off when their progress toward "first oil" is jeopardized -- by a newly elected government, corruption allegations, and a financial crisis devastating oil's price per barrel. But while the ensuing drama helps the film, we're left with little sense of whom to believe: Were EO's negotiations with the Kufuor regime really graft-free? Is John Atta Mills's new administration dealing fairly with corporate partners? Will they truly use all the revenue drilling generates for the public good, instead of lining its own pockets? (Ghana's experience in exploiting other natural resources, including oil and cocoa, suggests little wealth will make its way to the average citizen.) Big Men occasionally hints that it has opinions on these questions, but it keeps them very close to the vest, and offers insufficient evidence for viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Production Company: Boynton Films

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Rachel Boynton

Executive producers: Steven Shainberg, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Dan Cogan, Diana Barrett, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz, Christina Weiss Lurie, Jeffrey Lurie, Rick Rosenthal

Director of photography: Jonathan Furmanski

Music: Nathan Larson

Editor: Seth Bomse

Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

No rating, 100 minutes