Dinosaur 13 documentary review: long Black Hills road

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Dinosaur 13 green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
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.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
1 Comment
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Wed, Aug 13, 2014 6:54pm

“[W]hile the scientific method may be coolly rational, the people who do science are deeply emotionally caught up in their work.”

I love seeing this in person or on tv/film. One of my favorite things to watch on YouTube are episodes of the British (Channel 4) series Time Team, which was an archaeology show that lasted 20 years. (They showed some early episodes on what was then called History International here in the US in the late 1990s, but not since then.)

They made some amazing discoveries on the digs they conducted, but some of my favorite moments are when the historians and archaeologists are being all passionate on camera. Once, Tony Robinson (the host) was giving the head digger Phil Harding grief over the lack of tangible evidence of what Phil was saying was in the trench, and Phil shot back with a truly emotional defense of his work. Tony said he was just pulling Phil’s leg, but Phil’s response was heartfelt: “It hurts, deep down, when you say things like that!” You could tell that Tony was sorry for unknowingly causing his friend pain.