Documentary filmmaker Rachel Boynton is developing a niche as a chronicler of the tricky maneuvering of American companies doing business in the Third World. Boynton’s 2005 film, Our Brand Is Crisis, explored what happened when American spin doctors got involved in a Bolivian presidential election. Her follow-up, Big Men, chronicles the aftermath of modest American oil company Kosmos Energy, which looks to make a big score off Ghana’s coast when a massive supply of oil is found in what comes to be known as Jubilee Field.
As the film opens, Kosmos is led by chairman and CEO Jim Musselman, a lanky, towering Texan who looks and acts the part of the big-shot Texas oil man. If a fictional filmmaker were looking to cast a villain in a complicated narrative about a dastardly American oil company exploiting a struggling African nation, he’d probably cast someone like Musselman, with his J.R. Ewing vibe and air of slightly sinister avuncularity.
Thankfully, Big Men doesn’t have heroes or villains. It’s a deep dive into an endless pool of moral and political ambiguity in which very little is clear-cut, except that the desire for wealth and power—the urge to be the eponymous “big men”—is universal and cuts across racial, class, and cultural barriers. By the time the film concludes, Musselman is closer to being the film’s hero than he is its villain; he projects the confidence of someone in complete control, but the machinations of international finance have a way of dwarfing even figures as outsized as him.
Big Men begins with Ghanian businessman George Owusu of the tiny E.O. Group reaching out to Kosmos Energy about a partnership to look for precious resources in Ghana. After the oil strike, Jubilee Field’s name takes on an ironic bent, since the discovery creates as many problems as it solves. Kosmos is eager to capitalize on its enormous find, and understandably anxious about the possible complications about doing business in Ghana. The Ghanian government is similarly eager to take advantage of a potentially massive windfall, but problems begin to emerge when the sitting president is replaced by a rival much less friendly to Kosmos’ commercial interests. The situation gets even trickier when both Ghana and the United States separately begin investigations into Kosmos’ dealings to determine whether they’ve behaved unethically, or bribed officials for better treatment.
Are the ethics investigations a genuine attempt to stamp out corporate corruption, and protect the people and resources of Ghana, or are they an attempt by the Ghanian government to gain the upper hand in their dealings with Kosmos? Can the Ghanian government be trusted to act ethically and honorably any more or less than Kosmos Energy can? Will Ghanian use the money gained from its resources to make life better for common people, or will oil become a massive subject of corruption and thievery, as it was in neighboring Nigeria, which the film posits as a harrowing cautionary tale about the dangers of an unexpected influx of money? Kosmos and Ghana aren’t the only players in this saga; other oil companies factor in as well, as do bandits who commandeer the oil from the pipelines without bothering to pay off Kosmos or the government.
One of Boynton’s great gifts as a filmmaker is her ability to make complicated international wrangling on a global scale not just understandable, but relatable without resorting to charts, graphs, massive info-dumps, or laborious exposition. So while on some level, Big Men is about the excavation of energy resources in Ghana, on a more visceral level, it’s about greed and the complicated business of juggling selfish interests and the greater good. Throughout the film, Boynton cuts to a participant’s small child or the framed picture of an executive’s family to convey the enormous stakes at play. The oil men and government officials aren’t just fighting an epic battle over their own futures: They’re fighting on behalf of their children and grandchildren, as well.
Big Men’s cleverness is that it ultimately isn’t a movie about economic colonialism or the complicated realpolitik of trying to do business in Ghana: It’s about the inherent faults and weaknesses in human nature, and how they manifest in the social systems these innately flawed people construct.