Film Review: Dinosaur 13

Doc chronicling the sad plight of dedicated paleontologists, academics and scholars as they hunt and preserve a prized dinosaur fossil is no treat for kids enthralled by dinosaurs or <i>Jurassic Park</i> adventures, but another wake-up call about injust
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The title notwithstanding, Dinosaur 13 is no actioner pitting mere humans in helmets and khakis against giant beasts of millennia past. But it does begin with a blast of excitement as Todd Douglas Miller’s doc kicks off with an enthralling fossil find in 1990, when associates of South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute, most notably paleontologist Susan Hendrickson who made the initial discovery, unearth a historic dinosaur fossil on a cliff in the state’s Badlands. Say hello to the largest and most complete (about 80%) Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found. (Previously, fossil finds had been less complete.)

The 17-day excavation is arduous, as the scholar/diggers map the bones and meticulously extract them from the ground and transport their find to the Institute. The fossil, estimated to be 65 million to 100 million years old, gets the youthful name of Sue. She is moved to the Institute-affiliated Black Hills Museum of Natural History in the tiny town of Hill City, where she becomes the museum’s anchor, a gift to the public.

But trouble followed, with much of what transpired told by Hendrickson’s scientist colleague Peter Larson. The first sign came early by way of local Indian tribe member Maurice Williams, who claims ownership of the land where the fossil was found. A cursory verbal agreement and $5,000 handed over to Williams seem to seal a deal made before Sue’s real value comes to light. Soon all hell breaks loose. FBI agents show up at the Institute to take Sue and, with their telltale crime-scene tape, seal off the building. The charge is a violation of the U.S. Antiquities Act that forbids removal of antiquities from U.S. lands without permission of the government. Sue is taken to another town, amidst protests from Hill City locals, sobbing from Hendrickson, and lamenting from the others.

Journalists get on board, also revealing that the Institute’s research and other material was confiscated. Tribesman Williams re-emerges to claim he owns Sue. As one observer puts it, “There’s no more legally complicated or complex a place than where Sue was found.” This historic fossil becomes a matter of real estate.

The good guys in this legal tale are obvious: Larson and his team and local adherents are mostly a gaggle of soft-spoken, serious academics and scholars wanting to do good and apparently devoid of any mercenary motives. But few good stories lack villains and Dinosaur 13 has a few. There’s the U.S. attorney who works the 38 felony indictments against the fossil people and causes Sue’s confinement for an astonishing 961 days from public eyes. And one of the presiding judges actually sentences Larson to prison time. (He does about two years in the federal prison that hosted John Gotti and the like.)

In the late 1990s, poor Sue ends up on the auction block at Sotheby’s, and viewers will have to decide where auction house head David Redden stands. (Her many boxes fetch well over $7 million.) While Larson landed in jail and landowner Williams landed millions, Sue landed at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Occasional re-enactments and archival footage are smoothly integrated and add benign narrative steroids to the important drama unfolding. Once again comes across the message that U.S. justice has holes that a tank (or dinosaur) can plow through. It’s that old story, retold in too many episodes, of people and interests savagely barreling forward to expropriate something of value that rightfully belongs to others. The message is a reminder that anyone who possesses anything of value to others is a moving target for the usual suspects (not unlike landlords in gentrifying Manhattan neighborhoods).

Like 1971 and other docs of its kind, Dinosaur 13 is not a spectacle for the big screen but best savored in a more intimate environment that allows for more personal time to consider and discuss its issues. Dinosaurs here are almost like MacGuffins, because the doc is really about what corrupt and self-serving people can get away with in America and about the injustices decent Americans endure because of them.

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