Cleverly assembled to tell a complex true story from a hugely engaging perspective, this documentary can't help but spark a sense of righteous rage in the audience. The film outlines a series of deeply unjust events involving a group of true believers who had their finest achievement stolen from them by greedy neighbours and meddling politicians. Honestly, who knew palaeontology was such a cut-throat business?
It was the summer of 1990 in the Badlands of South Dakota when palaeontologist Susan Hendrickson discovered the fossilised remains of a T-rex, the thirteenth discovered and by far the most complete. None of the previous 12 were more than 40 percent complete, while this one, nicknamed "Sue", is about 80 percent. With her colleagues Peter and Neal Larson and Terry Wentz, Susan purchased the rights to Sue for a record $5,000 from the landowner, then the team spend a year getting the fossil ready to exhibit at their local museum. But before they finished, the FBI raided their lab and confiscated Sue, and seven years of legal arguments followed. Even worse, the prosecutors drummed up unnecessary criminal charges against the palaeontologists.
Clearly all of this is about money. When Sue was ultimately auctioned off, she brought $7.6 million to the cash-grabbing landowners and their lawyers. Meanwhile, the ragtag fossil-hunters had their lives completely derailed by legal action and even jail time. Director Todd Douglas Miller lets these people tell their story with quite a lot of detail, unveiling the plot chronologically through stills and home movies, plus some gorgeously shot new footage and re-enactments. Through it all, it's clear that these palaeontologists were excavating for the love of it, and for the benefit of their small-town community. In fact, Peter felt so strongly about Sue that he kept watch over the container she was stored in for all those years, even talking to it.
The dedication and tenacity of these lowly scientists is seriously inspiring in the face of such overwhelming oppression. Yes, this amazing story resonates far beyond a tale about dinosaur bones: this is a vivid account of David standing up to Goliath. And thankfully the filmmakers resist the urge to get flashy with animated versions of Sue rampaging through the landscape. Instead, they keep the focus on the people involved, highlighting the grassroots efforts to see justice prevail for Sue, as the small town rallies around their neighbours and tries to exert pressure on the government to do the right thing. And seeing so much human compassion in the face of bold-faced greed is remarkably inspiring.
Run time: 95 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th August 2014
Distributed by: Lionsgate Films
Production compaines: Statement Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 31 Rotten: 12
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Producer: Todd Douglas Miller
Starring: Peter L. Larson as Himself, Louie Psihoyos as Himself
Also starring: Patrick Duffy