The discovery of “Sue”, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever unearthed, should have been a cause for celebration. How could it not be? Everybody loves dinosaurs, right? We make movies about them, color them purple and have them educate our kids on television, and of course they are the biggest draw for most museums the world over. So how can such a discovery turn into a morass of greed, murky legal disputes, and prison sentences? The fascinating documentary Dinosaur 13 tells you exactly how such a happy event became a public nightmare.
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, the film is based on the passionate novel by paleontologist Peter Larson, who along with volunteer Susan Derrickson (“Sue” is named after her) and his brother Neal discovered “Sue” in 1990 in a questionable path of land in South Dakota. Questionable because it was found on the property of morally dubious land owner Maurice Williams, who bypassed the usual ownership agreements in a show of friendship. The Larsons planned on excavating the remarkable find, said to be about 80% complete, and house it in their small museum in the tiny town of Hill City. Before they could really get started, a joint FBI/Coast Guard unit had swooped in with an intimidating show of force, claimed the fossil (while townspeople protested “Save Sue!”) and boxed it up in a government storage facility where it would remain for more than a decade.
What began as a cheerful story of discovery quickly becomes a complicated jumble of accusations and legalese, with Miller giving many of the principles their chance to speak. Mostly that would be the Larsons, Peter’s wife and journalist Kristin Donnan, and partner Bob Farrar, who express their sadness and righteous anger over the loss of “Sue”, who they talk about like a kidnapped friend. While we never get to hear from Williams, some on the government side get their say and they come off like villains pressing their boot heel in the necks of the little guy. The government’s case boiled town to tribal land rights, while an obviously-corrupt judge did everything in his power to pile on as many additional charges as possible. Did “Sue” really belong to the Larsons and his Black Hills Institute? Or does it belong in the hands of the scheming Williams, who only wants to reap the profits from its sale? Douglas doesn’t pretend to be impartial in how the story is framed, giving the scientists every benefit of the doubt and opportunity to share their side without refute. There’s probably a more complete version of this dispute out there somewhere.
Like another great documentary, The Art of the Steal, Dinosaur 13 will infuriate enthusiasts who wish to see art out of the hands of profiteers and in the hands of those who will appreciate and share it with the world.