Dinosaur 13 documentary review: long Black Hills road
A bittersweet reminder that while the scientific method may be coolly rational, the people who do science are deeply emotionally caught up in their work.
I’m “biast” (pro):
love dinosaurs (who doesn’t?)
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Perhaps more amazing than the fact that we know anything at all about dinosaurs is that we can know so much about them with so few specimens to examine. The title of the fascinating Dinosaur 13 refers to the skeleton of the T. rex known as Sue, who now resides at the Field Museum in Chicago: she was, at the time of her discovery in August 1990, only the 13th example of the species ever found, and the biggest and most complete at that. (There have been a few more unearthed since, but not many.) This is the story of the long, strange road she took from her original resting place in the sere, empty hills of South Dakota to centerpiece attraction at one of the world’s finest natural-history museums, a journey interrupted by byzantine legal wrangling, fetid bureaucracy, accusations of professional impropriety, and other human soap opera.
Brothers Peter and Neal Larson grew up prospecting for fossils in South Dakota and eschewed an academic route in favor of setting up the Black Hills Institute in tiny Hill City, and when their colleague Susan Hendrickson discovered the now famous T. rex specimen (it’s named for her), they figured this impressive dinosaur would, once on display at their institute, put them on the scientific map… and the tourist map, too. But controversy erupted over whether the excavation had been conducted legally: had Sue been discovered on land held in trust by the federal government on behalf of Native American tribes? (In the days before GPS, it was almost impossible to tell where the boundaries are.)
Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller combines footage shot at the time — including remarkable video of the dig as its true value unfolded — with new interviews to paint a picture of modern science as not only an intellectual discipline but a shared collective experience, as when Hill City schoolchildren shout “Shame on you!” to the soldiers confiscating Sue after the feds got involved. We share their outrage that a creature that speaks to our imagination and wonder from across the millenia can be treated like a criminal herself.
That Sue is free now — after a long legal battle and an unprecedented auction — doesn’t seem to have assuaged the heartbreak that the Larsons, passionate armchair scientists, endured over her loss, and this becomes a bittersweet reminder that while the scientific method may be coolly rational, the people who do science are deeply emotionally caught up in their work.