“Sue” was and is the most complete T-Rex skeleton in existence, a
paleontological find of such importance and with such far-ranging consequences
that she changed science and American legal precedent, and not just the lives of
those who stumbled across this “find of the (last) century.”
Sue was the thirteenth Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered, and was
found by amateur fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson, thus her name and the title of
the new documentary, “Dinosaur 13.” Todd Douglas Miller’s film is a tale of
plucky, underdog success, “the stuff that dreams are made of,” undercut by murky
land boundaries, double-dealing and an absurdly heavy-handed Federal justice
Peter L. Larson and Neal L. Larson are professional commercial fossil hunters
who, with their employee Hendrickson, discovered and extracted Sue from the
Badlands of South Dakota. With their Black Hills Institute, they had hopes of
making her the centerpiece of a small town museum that they’d fill with the
fossils that they’d collected over their decades in the business — the ones
they hadn’t sold, anyway.
Then the Native American owner of the land where they found Sue and paid
$5,000 to haul away, the Federal government, which actually held the deed to the
land in trust, and a Federal prosecutor nixed all that. The skeleton was seized
and the Feds started looking into an “antiquities” business that sits outside
of academic respectability for possible law violations.
Miller lets the Larsons, their partner Bob Farrar, journalist-writer (and
Peter Larson’s wife) Kristin Donnan, academics, IRS officials, U.S. Park Service
experts and others tell this complex tale of tribal land ownership and
prosecutorial reprisals that tied up Sue in courts for years after her 1990
uncovering near Hill City, South Dakota.
Did Sue belong to the Larsons and their Black Hills Institute and museum, to
the Federal government, which believed she might fall under the Federal
Antiquities Act, or to landowner Maurice Williams, who wanted to auction the
skeleton off to the highest bidder?
Miller’s strikingly photographed film, using the Larsons’ home video, old
news footage of the celebrated case and fresh interviews with such eyewitnesses
as National Geographic photographer and later Oscar winning documentary
filmmaker Louis Psihoyos (“The Cove”) to tell a story of small town Western
folks wronged by Big Government, Big Money and a Native American villain who, in
an earlier and less politically-correct age, would have been referred to by a
phrase that ends with “Giver.” Williams is one of a couple of bad guys in this
documentary, whose point of view mirrors that of the chanting school kids who
protested the scores of Federal agents and National Guardsmen (providing
transport) yelling “Save Sue, shame on You!” as the collection was crated up and
removed from Hill City.
But there are moments when you wonder if this CNN-produced documentary is
telling the whole story, if there was cherry picking in points of view chosen.
Referring to the prosecutor as “controversial,” a loaded word that means
nothing, or the judge as bent out of shape by leaks that supposedly revealed how
flimsy the government’s case was, demands more proof, or explanation. And while
there is brief discussion of the conflict between academic-credentialed and
institutionally-backed paleontologists and commercial fossil hunters, however
well-trained and well-intentioned, that begs for deeper exploration.
What’s on the screen is pretty damning, from the moment the Feds swoop in, to
the finale, which smacks of the heavy tread of big money museums and their big
money backers. This much is certain, after “Dinosaur 13,” commercial fossil
finders and sellers aren’t the only ones who get to place a value on what they
dig up. And landowners who allow digging on their land will join the ranks of
those who see dollar signs in those sun-bleached bones half-buried in the buttes
of the American West.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements, language and brief smoking
Cast: Peter L. Larson, Neal L. Larson, Susan Hendrickson, Kristin Donnan, Bob
Credits: Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, based on the book “Rex Appeal: The
Amazing Story of Sue the Dinosaur that Changed Science, the Law and My Life.” A
Lionsgate/CNN Films release.
Running time: 1