Prior to 1990, there had only been 12 Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils discovered and none as large and as complete as “Sue”, the T-Rex fossil uncovered during a dig in the badlands of South Dakota. “Dinosaur 13” tells the story of not only the discovery of this unique and groundbreaking fossil but also the extraordinary events which followed.
Directed and Produced by Todd Douglass Miller and based on the book ‘Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life’ by Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan, for its first half hour or so, it’s an interesting if dry documentary on the subject of fossil hunting and the process of excavating and carefully restoring “Sue”. But things take a turn for the darkly farcical when the US Government intervenes in a spectacularly heavy-handed way, setting the stage for a ten year battle between the Black Hills Institute, the FBI, the National Park Service, the Bureau Of Indian Affairs and Maurice Williams, the owner of the land where the bones were discovered.
Pitched as a principle battle between scientific research and the twin threats of greed and Government bureaucracy, it’s certainly not an objective look at the events and is skewed, understandably, in favour of the Larson brothers and the Black Hills Institute who made the original discovery and believed they were acting in good faith.
Although the true story is an interesting one and the characters involved, from ambitious acting US attorney Kevin Schieffer to the disingenuous landowner Morris Williams are larger than life, the film suffers from poor storytelling, undermining the drama. Assembled from archive footage and numerous present-day interviews of the individuals on one side of the story, there are very few re-enactments, especially when it comes to the legal proceedings at the heart of the matter. Intead, the film offers us pictures of newspaper cuttings and text captions across footage of an empty courtroom. The main misstep though is that the film tips its hand to the eventual outcome about half way through which, if you’re coming to the story fresh, renders much of the rest of the film moot.
Narrative weakness aside, it’s still a fascinating story of discovery, greed and bureaucratic vindictiveness; it just could have done with a bit more dramatic flair to make the story really come alive.