The story told in Dinosaur 13 is perfectly suited to a feature-length documentary, featuring enough dramatic twists and turns to sustain 90-plus minutes with little padding. A complete T-Rex skeleton – “the most important paleontological find of all time” – is discovered by a group of scientists, but initial euphoria is overwhelmed when the skeleton (“Sue”) is embroiled in a complex legal and political maelstrom. With stock footage, talking heads and occasional re-enactments competently collated by director Todd Douglas Miller into a well-paced whole, Dinosaur 13 should be an excellent documentary.
It’s not. Dinosaur 13 tells a compelling story, but its storytelling is fundamentally disingenuous. One-sided documentaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you elide the fact that your naïve young scientists were actually members of a for-profit corporation while neglecting the cultural complexity associated with their attempts to purchase a fossil that sold for seven-and-a-half million dollars by giving a mere five thousand bucks to a Native American landowner … well, you’ve stretched “one-sided” to its limits. It’s a shame, because a more nuanced take on this subject – one less obsessed with justifying an alleged ‘witch hunt’ – could have been a truly great film. At least the dinosaur looks impressive.