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A record-shattering fossil find leads to an infuriating tale of governmental persecution in Todd Douglas Miller‘s Dinosaur 13, the saga of a T. rex named Sue and the man who loved her. Engaging characters and the persistent appeal of dinosaurs benefit the doc, whose Byzantine legal content might otherwise be off-putting; it will play best on cable, though distributors could first find an audience for a modest art house run.
The story begins in 1990, when a particularly inauspicious day for fossil-diggers in South Dakota’s badlands — oppressive fog, a flat tire, a flat spare and faulty pump — are offset by a miracle: Wandering around lost in the fog, team member Susan Hendrickson sees a group of bones exposed on a hillside and immediately knows they belong to a Tyrannosaurus rex. Members of this group — the Black Hills Institute, a for-profit crew founded by men who’d been digging things up and putting them on exhibit since childhood — spend the next few weeks painstakingly digging out a skeleton that proves to be over 80 percent complete. That’s far more intact than any other T. rex discovery, and this one’s bigger, too. They name it for the woman who found it.
Ample (if low-tech) video footage documents this dig and the two years of painstaking preparation that followed. BHI co-founder Peter Larson let anyone who was curious come in and marvel at the creature’s skull; plans circulated for a local museum with Sue at its heart.
Then, in May of 1992, BHI had surprise visitors: A grandstanding local prosecutor brought dozens of FBI agents and National Guard soldiers to their facility with a search warrant, claiming the skeleton was stolen from federal lands. Over three days, shocked townsfolk protested as soldiers carted off thousands of pounds of specimens — crates that would languish for years in a maintenance building on the campus of a Rapid City college.
The ensuing legal battle, revolving mostly around the U.S. government’s deals with Native American tribes and a patchwork of regions that each has its own regulations governing how geological finds can be sold, occupies a large chunk of the film. After Sue’s fate is decided, BHI faces an even more aggressive legal assault from officials who here seem almost unbelievably petty, ill-informed or narrow-minded.
Without giving too much away for viewers who didn’t follow the story as it happened, the good guys get dragged through the mud and some very undeserving people get rich. Miller could do a better job explaining how the latter part of that equation happened, but at 106 minutes his film already feels a bit long. More deserving of additional screen time is the debate over whether our very sympathetic protagonists deserve our unquestioning support: We’re told briefly of philosophical disagreements between academic paleontologists and those, like BHI, who dig up fossils to sell to people. The film clearly has picked a side in that debate, but some viewers will feel they’re being urged along that path without a full consideration of whether anybody should be allowed to buy or sell a treasure so incomparably rare.
Production Company: Dinosaur 13, LLC
Director-Producer-Editor: Todd Douglas Miller
Director of photography: Thomas Petersen
Music: Matt Morton
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 106 minutes
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