Imagine you’ve dedicated your entire life to one pursuit, living and breathing it every single day. Then imagine that you have come across the greatest find in that field only to have it torn cruelly away. That’s the fate that befell Pete Larson and his team at the Black Hills Institute after they found and excavated Sue, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever discovered. Dinosaur 13 tells the compelling story from the early euphoric highs to the bitter lows and back.
It all started in 1990 when a chance wander in South Dakota led Sue Hendrickson to the fossil. Working methodically and with some skill, the team carefully exposed and preserved the specimen before taking it back to their HQ in Hill City to prepare it for public show in the museum they were planning. However, in 1992, all hell broke loose when the Federal Government seized the skeleton on the grounds that it had been found on federal land, and the original landowner reneged on a verbal agreement in order to claim a slice of the action as well. The end result was a long court case and criminal convictions on top of the confiscation of Sue.
The early scenes in Todd Douglas Miller’s film are swamped in optimism. As the camera swoops and rises over South Dakota, the sheer delight on the faces of the entire team as they pose with the skeleton is infectious and distressing at the same time. It’s hard to look at their wide smiles knowing what’s about to come. Miller shows the impact the loss of Sue has on those closest to the situation even today as several of them break down in tears just thinking about it. Pete Larson, head of the Black Hills Institute takes it hardest. After the seizure, he can often be found standing outside the warehouse in which she’s stored talking to his dinosaur.
While the early scenes remain the stand outs, Miller does an effective job of forging a path through the extremely convoluted legal situation that followed. Not content with merely seizing Sue, charges are brought against the Black Hills team for stealing fossils in general leading to a mammoth court case. He also wisely seeks out a little balance from his array of talking heads. Although it’s clearly tipped in favour of the Black Hills team, he finds Government employees willing to put their side of the case forward, significantly enhancing the films credibility.
The one area that needed work is the treatment of the Black Hills employees themselves. They are held up as paragons of virtue, plucky commercial collectors who are victimised by academics for the crime of collecting for profit. A potentially fertile ground for debate, Miller takes no steps to explore the fault lines between academic research and commercial practice. Equally, the team are not held accountable for any mistakes, particularly the naivety they all seem to demonstrate. Settling for verbal agreements when purchasing skeletons and not really knowing who’s land they are on seems unacceptably slack, a concern never raised by Miller.
Ultimately though, Miller succeeds in bringing out the importance of Sue, and the attachment those that found the dinosaur formed with it. Sue was a battered and broken creature, exhibiting shattered bones and a torn away jaw. Yet this dinosaur that was cowed in life now stands on public display for millions to see. It may have hurt, and it may have been unfair, but it was worth it.
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