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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Movies
Sept. 19 2014 2:06 PM The Guest and Fort Bliss How do we tell the stories of soldiers returning home from war?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.