A Dinosaur Documentary That’s Equal Parts Science Exhibit and Legal Thriller

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 17 2014 12:37 PM

A Dinosaur Documentary That’s Equal Parts Science Exhibit and Legal Thriller

187783744-geologist-bill-simpson-cleans-sue-a-67-million-year-old
A Rex named Sue. (Also pictured: Geologist Bill Simpson.)

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The opening documentary at Sundance is traditionally one of the strongest at the festival. In recent years, the spot has been occupied by Searching for Sugar Man, The Queen of Versailles, and 20 Feet from Stardom. This year the spotlight was on Dinosaur 13, about the discovery and struggle over the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found, nicknamed “Sue,” after the amateur paleontologist who found her.

Sue’s ownership became the subject of a custody battle and ultimately a federal criminal prosecution, as Brian Switek wrote about in “The Million-Dollar Dinosaur Scandal,” published in Slate last year. And so the film plays as an unusual mixture of science exhibit and John Grisham-style legal thriller—with shades of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, as the big bad federal government comes in and seizes the skeleton.

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Everyone knows that paleontologists love bones, but it’s another thing to see just how much they really do—that’s the best part of the documentary. The underlying issue as to who should own fossils dug up on federal or Indian lands—and whether commercial fossil diggers are a legitimate business—is not terribly well explored, however.

The reason? The film is, understandably, in love with Pete Larson, the American paleontologist who led the exhibition that found Sue—not to mention the rest of the plucky souls who love nothing more than spending weeks in the South Dakota backcountry digging for bones.

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