Saturday, December 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Dinosaur 13' (2014)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The first and final thirds of Todd Douglas Miller's documentary Dinosaur 13 are pretty riveting (if incredibly one-sided), which almost makes up for the way the middle third gets bogged down in the kind of tedious legal minutiae that would barely pass muster in a Dateline segment. Although there are people who argue otherwise, Miller makes a strong case in the first part of the film that paleontologist brothers Pete and Neal Larson suffered a gross injustice when the U.S. government seized a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that they had unearthed in South Dakota in 1990. The Larsons come across as simple, hard-working businessmen who love paleontology and are geekily excited by their discovery. Pete Larson's wife even expresses something akin to jealousy when describing how "Sue," as they named the T. rex, was the real great love of his life.

Miller lays the pathos on thick, but he does it well, and it's hard not to feel outraged (along with all the citizens of the Larsons' small South Dakota town, whose protests are seen in archival video) when the government swoops in, taking advantage of the questionable legal status of the land where the skeleton was found, and takes the Larsons' find away from them. But the movie then shifts to the long legal case against the Larsons and their associates, which was less about Sue and more about an alleged pattern of misrepresentation and potential thievery in the business of finding and selling fossils. Although Miller does interview an IRS investigator who was part of the case against the Larsons, every other person in the movie is horrified at these trumped-up charges against the good-hearted brothers, and the relentless bolstering of their case paradoxically ends up making it sound suspect. Also, the detailed account of the testimony and lengthy trial on nearly 150 fraud-related charges is boring and only tangentially related to the fascinating story of Sue (who remained in federal custody for years while the Larsons were investigated and tried).

Eventually the story returns to Sue, who was auctioned off at Sotheby's in highly dramatic fashion and ended up at a world-class museum in Chicago (which to me seems like a much more appropriate location for sharing with the public than the middle of nowhere in South Dakota). The Larsons are at least gracious in defeat (and poor Pete was clearly railroaded by the system when he was sentenced to two years in prison for impropriety related to customs declarations), but their story too often comes across as sour grapes. Miller based his movie on a book by Pete Larson and his wife, so there's no secret where the movie's sympathies lie. The story is fascinating enough not to need such blatant heartstring-tugging, though, and the movie only intermittently gets that across.

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