Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Sundance ’14: Dinosaur 13
paleontology, go directly to jail. That
is the Federal government’s idea of justice.
Frankly, it should hardly surprise us anymore, but viewers will still be
shocked and appalled at multi-agency smack-down that targeted a beleaguered independent
fossil hunter. It all started with a T-Rex
named Sue. Todd Douglas Miller
chronicles the thrill of discover and the agony of government persecution in Dinosaur 13, which screens
during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
1990, the few collected tyrannosaur skeletons were only 40% intact, at
best. Sue was about 80% intact,
including the s-word, “skull.” She was
named in honor of the woman who found her, Susan Hendrickson, a friend volunteering
on a private dig organized by Peter and Neal Larson, paleontologist brothers
who operated a for-profit fossil collection agency. They painstakingly excavated Sue and
successful began the early preservation process. Their idea was to keep Sue the T-Rex in
economically depressed Hill City, South Dakota, using her to anchor their
planned natural history museum. Then one
fateful day, the FBI swept in with search warrant and the state National Guard
confiscated the fragile fossil.
follows is an absolute horror story of abuse of power, malicious prosecution,
and state sponsored plunder. Unfortunately,
the Larsons had been prospecting on the land of the thoroughly shady Maurice
Williams, with his full permission. They
had duly purchased Sue from Williams, but as a member of the local tribe,
Williams’ land was held in trust by the Federal government, which led to rather
murky circumstances when Williams decided to reclaim Sue. Naturally, the Federal government fell in
line behind Williams, with the IRS quickly ganging up on the Larsons. As the
legal battle dragged out, the Feds and the presiding judge grew increasingly vindictive.
film raises a number of issues beyond the obvious injustice of an innocent
paleontologist sentenced to the same maximum security Federal pen incarcerating
Timothy McVeigh. Anyone involved in
natural resource industries in the west understands how the vast extent of
Federal holdings creates bureaucratic nightmare. However, one of the most
fascinating aspects of Dino 13 (deserving
more time) is the way university academics joined forces with the government
out their contempt for scrappy private sector fossil hunters like the Larsons.
documentary standards, Dino 13 boasts
a rather classy package, incorporating cinematographer Thomas Petersen’s
striking Black Hills vistas and composer Matt Morton’s distinctive score. Yet, the film has a muckraking heart. Miller completely convinces viewers a crime
was committed in South Dakota and the Larsons were the victims.
Indeed, it is hard to mistake the nature of the
persecution that was started by an interim Bush I U.S. Attorney and intensified
under his Clinton-appointed successor, given the conspicuous absence of
government players willing to sit for an interview. Only one former IRS agent has the guts to try
to defend their actions, failing miserably. As a result, you do not have to be
a diehard Objectivist to view the Sue T-Rex battle as an attack on free
enterprise, driven by greed and vanity. Thoughtfully constructed and
dramatically potent, Dinosaur 13 is
recommended for all doc watchers when it screens again today (1/18) in Salt
Lake, as well as this Tuesday (1/21) and Friday (1/24) in Park City during the
2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Labels: Documentary, Sundance '14