It should have been the discovery of the century, celebrated with a unity of spirit: the 1990 unearthing of Sue, a fossilized tyrannosaur of unusual completeness found in western South Dakota. In its early scenes, Dinosaur 13 works nearly as well as a certain Steven Spielberg thriller, creating the giddy, ominous mood of past and present colliding in excitement.
But just as the scientific community and the small town of Hill City were kvelling with pride, federal agents swept down on the dig, confiscating the find and plunging the participants into a multiyear squabble over ownership rights. Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary is centrally a legal drama—a gripping one that climaxes at a Sotheby’s auction while felony charges are weighed.
The injustice is cosmic, as are profoundly ironic shots of Sue’s carted-up skeleton sitting in a warehouse, Raiders of the Lost Ark–style, after a 65-million-year wait. Between Particle Fever and TV’s Cosmos, it’s been a terrific year for science docs; this cynical roller coaster of an exposé is just as important.
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