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Review: 'Big Men' hits a gusher of oil and greed

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No single resource is more essential to modern life than oil, and no film offers a more incisive look at how the enormous wealth oil creates subverts the morality of individuals, corporations, even entire countries than Rachel Boynton's compelling documentary "Big Men."

Those who remember Boynton's excellent previous film, "Our Brand Is Crisis," an examination of political consultants working at the highest levels of Latin American elections, know this director's specialty is the kind of insider access filmmakers dream about. In "Big Men," set in the world of oil capitalism in the West African nations of Ghana and Nigeria, that is true with a vengeance.

Working only with director of photography Jonathan Furmanski, Boynton spent seven years on this project. She made seven trips to Nigeria before even starting to film, six more to shoot, seven trips to Ghana and seven to Texas, the home base of oil exploration firm Kosmos Energy.

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The connections Boynton made, especially with Kosmos CEO Jim Musselman, became critical when Kosmos made an enormous discovery off the coast of Ghana. Christened the Jubilee Field, this deposit had the potential to return a staggering $22 billion to investors.

Because of all the work she put in before the camera rolled, as well as all the years she put in filming, Boynton was perfectly positioned to go behind closed doors. "Big Men" is a story told as it happens, not reconstructed once all the dust is settled. The result is not only an examination of the inner workings of international capitalism but a look at the vagaries of human nature as well.

For it's not just oil that everyone is dealing with in "Big Men," it is the universality of greed. As one interviewee puts it, "to become big is the prayer of everybody, an instinct in every human being." It's not only that everyone wants a share of this enormous money, it's also that everyone thinks that they truly deserve it. There are not heroes and villains here so much as people who are sure they are right and determined to look after their own interests.

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While the discovery of oil is a new experience for Ghana, it is old news in nearby Nigeria, and "Big Men" goes back and forth between these countries, in part because the mess that is the Nigerian oil situation is very much viewed as a cautionary tale by politicians and bureaucrats in Ghana trying to figure out how to deal with this potential windfall.

For though Nigeria's oil has created enormous wealth, hardly any of it has reached the people of the country, creating resentment that is as towering as the riches. The fury and frustration of impoverished Nigerians is so great that it has resulted in systematic sabotage of the pipelines.

To better understand this part of the oil equation, Boynton managed to get access to the camp of one of the key militant groups, the Deadly Underdogs, interviewing ski mask-wearing leaders as inebriated followers shoot off automatic weapons in the background.

What Ghana should do with its enormous oil wealth soon becomes an issue in that country's presidential elections, with the opposition insisting it will do a better job than the incumbents in making sure that the money is used for education and improving living conditions, not to line the pockets of politicians.

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Watching all this and hoping that their interests will not be disregarded are the principals of Kosmos Energy, who remind everyone that they took huge risks with no guaranteed reward and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in preparation expenses without immediate recompense.

One of the most interesting things about "Big Men" is that the ultimate outcome of this situation is unknown. Will Ghana make good use of its revenues? Will oil companies feel so disrespected that essential capital will be driven out of the country?

The only thing that's sure is that when on-the-ground reality is conveyed with the complexity and fascination it is here, unforgettable documentaries are always the result.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Big Men'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: At Los Feliz 3, Los Angeles

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