In 1990 palaeontologist Pete Larson and his team excavated the 13th T-Rex skeleton discovered so far. It was the largest and most complete specimen yet. Todd Douglas Miller’s Dinosaur 13, which premiered at Sundance, explores the consequences of those involved with the dinosaur nicknamed “Sue” as the FBI seized her bones because of ownership disputes, where they sat in storage for nearly 10 years.
It’s a film that belongs in a ‘thriller documentary’ subgenre that’s emerged in the past few years with films such as Man On Wire, The Imposter and Blackfish. They’re emotionally charged examinations of tragic events and their use of tension is often enthralling. Bias or not, they make for terrific cinema. For its whiplash style, personal elements and condemnation of injustice, Dinosaur 13 is the Dear Zachary of DinoDocs, if not quite as overwhelming.
The first 25 minutes are the highlight and ostensibly the high point of everyone’s lives before things got complicated. It documents the discovery and extraction of Sue with stunningly convenient archive footage shot at the time to paint a vivid picture. The palpable excitement of the scientists is contagious. Everyone has an intimate relationship with Sue. It captures the urgency of palaeontology as they justify that nature deteriorates fossils, which is something rarely considered. The doc wraps you up in the race to uncover Earth’s past.
However, the film struggles to focus on a particular person, even though it ends up on Pete Larson. He’s rarely a figure of discussion until the last part of the documentary. But even though it’s so scattered, it exudes the camaraderie of the fossil enthusiasts from experts to amateurs. It’s wonderful to watch the whole town of Black Hills come and see Sue’s skull with a sense of wonder.
As director Miller builds and builds this joy, it’s painful to watch when doom inevitably comes crashing down. They even have footage of the FBI and protestors shaming them, including children. It feels Spielberg-esque in line with E.T.’s crisis. But its sentiment does not come cheaply, despite teary-eyed interviews. The film is very thick and fast with its events, giving as much exposition as possible with quick text onscreen. Sometimes too quick to digest, but you get a feel for it.
The portrait of injustice that Miller paints is infuriating, and he evidently has an anti-Government bias due to this situation. The film has been criticised for its manipulation in this regard, but in documentary filmmaking that’s part and parcel. Yes, it does try and wring sympathy for the scientists and you could argue that it’s not earned, but that’s not what engages me. It illuminates a devastating folly of man that we can’t work together for progress and it’s all about claim to fame.
It develops into a grand custody battle of who owns Sue between Native American Reservations, Maurice Williams a man who bought the bones originally, the Government, and those who found her. The latter take the hardest punch. The film becomes a courtroom drama as they’re accused of theft and multitude of crimes due to doing business with something that they didn’t know they couldn’t claim. There are horrific technicalities that make your blood boil and the film is constantly acknowledging the ridiculous nature of it all.
It’s a wilfully abrasive film, peculiar as its events folded not 15 years ago and it’s all over something that’s already millions of years old. It’s attractively shot in the interviews and short re-enactments, although its low budget shows in those moments. Granted, that just reveals Miller’s creativity on set. Perhaps it could’ve slowed down the pace a few times just to feel more in the moment or to get closer to its subjects, but with such ground to cover I can see why it’s so eager. The cinematic score with violins makes it feel like a blockbuster treat, with a little reference to The Assassination of Jesse James by its close. Dinosaur 13 is an engrossing doc with a big achy heart.