A few years before Steven Spielberg made it cool again, paleontologist Pete Larson and his colleagues found a mostly complete T-Rex fossil in the South Dakota Badlands. Up to that point, no paleontologists were able to find an wholly intact T-Rex skull, which made their discovery all the more exciting. Dinosaur 13, a new documentary directed and produced by Todd Douglas Miller, the story of the fossil’s discovery and much more. Around the half hour mark, Miller’s attention shifts toward a complex legal quagmire, one that leads toward injustice. Miller’s handles the material in a one-sided way, leaving some nagging questions, yet this is a compelling account of how an overzealous justice system got in the way of a major scientific breakthrough.
Pete and his brother Neal are both from South Dakota, and they’ve always been into rocks and fossils. Together they started a for-profit research facility called the Black Hills Institute, and nothing beat the discovery of the T-rex in 1990 (it was nicknamed “Sue” after the volunteer who found her first). Using a mix of archival footage and interviews, Miller shows the patient care that went to Sue’s excavation, including the restoration in the Institute.
Their end goal was to put Sue on display in a museum, but then the FBI arrived in full force and seized Sue. It turns out that a US Attorney believed that Pete obtained Sue through illegal means, and they believed the fossil was therefore government property. There are two concurrent stories: a courtroom drama wherein Larson and his colleagues collectively face hundreds of indictments, and Sue’s ultimate fate. The catalyst for both is Maurice Williams, a mysterious figure who “sold” Sue to Larson. He’s never interviews on camera, of course, and Miller does not bother to explain why.
In the opening section, Miller glosses over the transaction between Larson and Williams. In a verbal contract, Larson agreed to pay $5000 for the specimen. Only later do we learn that Williams “owned” the land in a trust on behalf of a Native American tribe, which creates complex legal questions even before the specimen was sold. A more inquisitive documentary would investigate how much Larson knew, and when. At best, it seems like Larson and his colleagues were naïve in their belief the sale could be so simple; at worst, Larson deceived Williams because he knew the specimen’s value (it was ultimately sold at auction for millions). The section about Larson’s trial offers few answers: we only get a subjective, highly sympathetic account of what happened. Like this year’s The Internet’s Own Boy, Miller’s goal is not meant to persuade viewers, exactly. It’s meant to provoke outrage, and on those terms it is successful.
A major part of Larson’s “David vs. Goliath” narrative is Larson’s pure love for Sue, which is borderline creepy. There is a long scene where his wife – maybe ex-wife, Dinosaur 13 does not make it clear – describes how Larson would visit Sue in a government facility and attempt to console her. One of his colleagues said Larson was literally in love with Sue – that is damn creepy – and yet I think Miller intends that snippet to serve as evidence of Larson’s devotion. Miller piles on one injustice after another, including an excessive prison term for Larson, without delving into his naiveté or culpability about his crimes. Part of the case against The Black Hills Institute is how Larson and the others transported large sums of cash over international borders. One talking head notes the behavior is common, yet common sense says his assertion is dubious.
Dinosaur 13 does an excellent job of recreating the thrill of discovery. The archival footage shows the painstaking nature of paleontological work, which was done in brutal conditions, and the details of Sue’s skeleton are fascinating. Miller’s documentary falters since he does not have the same pursuit for knowledge when it comes the battle over Sue. Beat for beat, Dinosaur 13 seems to omit facts and context so that we come to see Larson as a martyr. I had sympathy for him: there is little doubt that Larson was made an example in an unfair way. I just wish Miller trusted his audience enough so that we could reach that conclusion after considering the facts, and not through brazen manipulation.