Dinosaur 13—a documentary about the Tyrannosaurus rex fossil nicknamed Sue and owned by our own Field Museum of Natural History—reaches its nadir when paleontologist Peter Larson confesses that he used to talk to Sue through the exterior window of a storage space at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Larson, a founder of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc., supervised excavation of the giant fossil in August 1990 after Sue Hendrickson, one of his staff, discovered it in the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in western South Dakota. Two years later the FBI, disputing Larson’s purchase of the fossil, raided the BHI facility in Hill City, South Dakota, and seized the artifact, which was then housed at the school pending the outcome of court proceedings. “Peter was in love with that dinosaur,” testifies a tearful BHI staffer, and strings swell over a reenactment of Larson murmuring to Sue through the window.
This tragic love affair between man and lizard is a particularly egregious example of how some documentary filmmakers, hoping for the kind of commercial success enjoyed by Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and Alex Gibney, play on viewers’ emotions in order to pump up the dramatic value of their narratives. Director Todd Douglas Miller, who based his film on Larson’s memoir Rex Appeal, has an excellent story to tell, one that raises important questions about the future of paleontology and the friction between public good and private gain. But he’s so busy strumming people’s heartstrings that Dinosaur 13 plays at times like a Tea Party rant about jackbooted government thugs breaking down your door, and at other times like children’s fare on the Discovery Channel. We all know kids love dinosaurs, but that’s no excuse for such a simpleminded treatment of such an ethically complicated subject.
The movie starts out well, as Miller re-creates the thrilling discovery and excavation of Sue with VHS footage shot at the time and talking-head reminiscences from Larson, Hendrickson, paleontologist Terry Wentz, and Neal Larson, Peter’s brother and partner in the Black Hills Institute. The foursome had already wrapped up their scouting mission at the Ruth Mason Quarry near Faith, South Dakota, but car trouble stranded them for a few hours, and Hendrickson, who didn’t feel like sitting around, struck off in a heavy fog to tramp around some unexplored territory. As the fog cleared, she came upon some bones embedded in a cliff wall, and over the next 17 days she and the others labored in the blazing heat to dig out the fossilized skeleton, which was about 80 percent complete and thus, by far, the most extensive T. rex ever found. The skull and most of its teeth were intact and perfectly articulated. Without question the skeleton was one of the most important geological discoveries in history.
The FBI raid in May 1992 provides Miller with his second big emotional wallop. In voice-over, Neal Larson remembers what he was doing in the office that morning when the door buzzer rang, the scene reenacted in close-ups that obscure the actor’s face. At the front door he was met by some three dozen federal agents, national guardsmen, and officials from the South Dakota School; according to the Larsons, the feds took “everything,” including paperwork and other fossils, and crime-scene tape encircled the building. This show of force backfired, however, when word of it spread through Hill City and neighboring communities; the Larsons had long since announced their intention to make Sue the centerpiece of a nonprofit paleontological museum with the potential to transform the town’s economy, and they had welcomed school children and other visitors into the facility to view their restoration work. By the end of the three-day raid, video footage shows crowds of adults and children hoisting protest signs and chanting “Shame on you!” as the trucks roll away.
Sue probably died in the jaws of another T. rex and sank into a pool of water and mud that protected her remains from scavengers, but that was nothing compared to the legal morass that consumed the Larsons after the feds raided their headquarters. The discovery site was located on land belonging to a Sioux tribesman, Maurice Williams, but held in trust by the U.S. government; Maurice accepted a check from Peter Larson for $5,000—then the largest amount ever paid for a dinosaur fossil—and was even captured on video acknowledging the transaction. But this handshake deal fell apart, with both Williams and the Sioux tribe claiming ownership of Sue, and the U.S. attorney handling the case accused the Larsons of having violated the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Larsons sued the federal government but lost; the judge in the case ruled that because the fossilized skeleton was mineralized and thus part of the land, it fell inside a statute that prohibited the sale of land held in trust by the U.S. government.
As portrayed in Dinosaur 13, the FBI raid was the sort of authoritarian nightmare that lends credence to the black-helicopter crowd, and Miller is equally slanted in his depiction of the federal indictment that followed in November 1993, as the Sue case was drawing to a close. Though the 39 felony and misdemeanor counts, including theft of fossils from federal lands, were unrelated to the Sue litigation, Miller frames the case as government payback for the Larsons’ civil suit. Kevin Schieffer, the U.S. attorney who brought the indictment, and Richard Battey, the federal judge who ruled on the case, are both demonized, and most of the commentary on this episode comes from Larson loyalists—especially Kristin Donnan, a journalist who began covering the Sue controversy at the invitation of Peter Larson and wound up marrying him. “This is America!” exclaim no fewer than three of the movie’s interviewees, outraged over how Larson and the BHI were treated.
Accusations of prosecutorial overreach are bolstered by the fact that most of the charges ended in acquittal, and the narrative that Judge Battey was out to get BHI is supported by the fact that Larson drew an unusually harsh two-year sentence for a pair of customs violations. Yet Miller, who appears to have fallen in love with Larson himself, discredits Dinosaur 13 by ignoring the long-simmering conflict between academic paleontologists and fossil salesmen that puts this legal story in context. Larson may come off as a scientific dreamer crushed by the gummint, but in truth he’s a businessman, and BHI is one of the largest commercial vendors of fossils in the U.S. Reputable paleontologists appear on camera to defend Larson’s excavation practices, yet in a much more balanced 1997 account from the PBS series Nova, Larson himself admits, “We have to do our job in a way in which we can support ourselves, and we can’t afford to waste time taking years to excavate specimens. We have to do it in a way that is expeditious.”
Academic paleontologists have good reason to be frustrated with the commercial excavation of fossils. Since the 1970s the market has exploded, leading to numerous amateurs running around with picks and shovels; the problem is particularly acute on Indian reservations, where widespread poverty and unemployment make fossils seem like easy money. These modern-day prospectors can damage specimens and often don’t bother to collect data about the fossil’s location, the surrounding sediment, and other factors that are every bit as crucial to scientific study as the artifact itself. There are even cases of outright forgery—foreign teeth being added to a skull to make it more valuable, for instance. Large-scale operations like BHI may understand their responsibility to science, but unscrupulous vendors have been known to shell out hard cash to fossil collectors who show up at the back door.
These problems become even more vexing on the international stage, because U.S. laws restricting sale of fossils are more lax than in Europe and Asia, and the American southwest is such a treasure trove of prehistoric finds. Academic researchers increasingly find themselves shut out of private lands by commercial companies that have cut deals with the owners, and shut out of the international market by big money from overseas. In fact, when Maurice Williams cut a deal with Sotheby’s in New York to auction off Sue, the big fear was that she would wind up on the other side of the globe; she was rescued for the Field only through a behind-the-scenes campaign that brought in McDonald’s, Disney, and other benefactors. The auction, in October 1997, fetched a staggering $8.3 million and inaugurated a new era of financial speculation in dinosaur bones. But it could have been worse: after all, Sue might have wound up in Donald Trump’s living room.
Earlier this year Larson fired back at critics in an editorial for the web site Paleontologia Electronica, pointing out that “commercialism has remained a crucial and functionally key element of paleontology throughout its history.” Over the past few centuries, commercial excavators have been responsible for numerous scientific breakthroughs and have pioneered techniques that advanced the art of fossil recovery. Many of the great public museums, Larson points out, began as private collections, and the profit motive animates private landowners who might otherwise let their fossils weather away in the sun. The best path forward, he argues, is a spirit of cooperation between amateurs, academic institutions, and companies like his own: “Working in partnership we can all help to solve the contracting job market and diminishing public funds for paleontological research and exhibits.” Right or wrong, this is a more nuanced argument than you’re going to find in Dinosaur 13, a tale of merciless predation and powerful jaws.