Sue, Chicago’s beloved resident dinosaur, is the subject of Dinosaur 13, a documentary that was released earlier this year at Sundance and is currently running at Gene Siskel Film Center.
In short, the documentary covers the bizarre saga of Sue from the discovery of the first fossils in 1990 at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in western South Dakota; the painstaking 17-day ordeal of carefully excavating the bones in 115 degree temperatures; the yearlong reconstruction process followed by the strong-arm seizure of the skeleton by, none other than, the FBI and the National Guard.
The documentary continues with the ten-year battle with the FBI, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that created a national media circus of little guy versus big brother.
Compelling and documentary don’t often go hand and hand but this Todd Douglas Miller engrossing story of the exhilaration of the find followed by the agony of defeat prompted by its abrupt and insensitive seizure makes a case for compelling real life drama.
The cast and characters, at times, seem more like fiction than reality.
- Peter Larson, the main man--who from the age of four was fascinated by fossils, studied them and (along with his brother Neal) opened South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research that excavated, prepared and sold artifacts and museum-quality replicas--was convicted for his part in the "fossil wars" and spent 18 months in federal prison.
- Susan Hendrickson, a volunteer for the Institute, who was first to discover the T-Rex vertebrae became the real life person for whom the T-Rex was named.
- Kristin Donnan, a reporter for the NBC-TV program "Unsolved Mysteries" who came to the Black Hills to check out the dinosaur story as a journalist, fell in love with Larson and ended up marrying him.
- Maurice Williams, the questionable figure who may or may not have had a right to the bones--ended up walking away with a cool $7.4 million.
- The judge with a grudge, Judge Richard Battey of Federal District Court, who handed down a two year sentence in Federal Prison to Larson for what basically boiled down to Larson not filling out two forms for customs.
Whether Dinosaur 13's condemnation of the government is right as Dennis Harvey’s review for Variety believes saying "Those looking for a classic instance of the little guy being screwed by big government need look no further than “Dinosaur 13.”
OR it is "bullshit"--as Slate's Don Lessem opines in his recent rant against the documentary saying "There is no more need for self-styled paleontologists (referring to Larson) than there is for amateur gynecologists."
What the controversy really boils down to is a question of academics versus commercialism. Whatever side you are on, Dinosaur 13 is worth a look--as is SUE--who lucky for us stands tall and proud at Chicago's Field Museum for all to see.
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