The number thirteen certainly was unlucky for Peter Larson and his team of palaeontologists when they stumbled upon one of the great dinosaur finds in history – the remains of ‘Sue’, only the 13th Tyrannosaurs Rex to be found by 1990. What happened next was a David and Goliath battle between his small-town dinosaur institute and the might of the federal government, a parable of an American Dream undone by its own success documented in Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13 (2014). Larson and his Black Hills Institute meticulously unearthed the fossilised Rex – named after Sue Hendrickson, the digger who found her – and went about readying her for display at their South Dakota museum.
Larson and his colleague anticipated that people from all over the world would come to view the fossil, but one unremarkable morning two years they found the FBI banging down their doors, as well as dozens of the National Guard ready to take the giant dinosaur off them with a US seizure warrant issued by the attorney general. Sadly, the troubles kept coming. Later, the group, who paid $5000 (the most ever) to a local landowner where they unearthed Sue, were sued by the government for stealing the dinosaur from Native American, confiscating not just Sue but everything fossil in the institute’s possession. Miller keeps you absorbed in Sue’s tale despite the legal shenanigans that take up most of the film; he keeps it simple, focusing on the story of Larson, a passionate, smart and lovable expert.
Miller isn’t so interested in the Rex herself – still one of the great palaeontological finds – but its focus on characters and people actually elevates it above an episode of Horizon that might feel less personable. For the most part, Dinosaur 13 is highly absorbing – some of the decisions that come against Larson are truly shocking – but it does lack in places as a piece of documentary journalism. It never uncovers why 36 members of the national guard took the specimen away when that wouldn’t have been the case if human bodies were hanging in the museum instead. Nor does the film address the point about whether the South Dakota government was itself at fault for raising the issue of Sue’s provenance.
Was it a government conspiracy (Sue later sold at auction for millions) or just massive incompetence? That said, the film gamely attempts to show some of the opposing viewpoints, including the head of the prosecution against Larson’s company, and it’s unfortunate that suggests more time should be spent explaining why our sympathies should lie with Larson. A shifty district court judge, who sends down a shock sentence for Larson, seems the most obvious personality not given his chance to speak. Still, Dinosaur 13 is slickly edited, creatively directed – with some intriguing use of dramatised scenes among archive footage – and never boring to watch.
This review was originally published on 25 April 2014 as part of our Sundance London coverage. For more info about Dinosaur 13, visit dogwoof.com.