One of the most impressive things about “Dinosaur 13,” Todd
Miller’s moving documentary that premiered at Sundance and hits theaters August 15 from Lionsgate, is that it
makes the audience realize — and feel — what it means to lose something incredibly
important. A spouse? No. A child? Not quite.
Over the film’s near two-hour running time, we come to
understand that to paleontologist Peter Larson — who with his team in 1990
discovered the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in archeological
history, named it Sue, and then became embroiled in a lengthy, well, “custody” battle
over her — this dinosaur is a child he loves very much. He certainly grieves
when he loses her.
The doc begins in the badlands of South Dakota, where Sue
was discovered by Larson’s teammate Susan Hendrickson (thus becoming the dino’s
namesake). Using archival footage that would ultimately become instrumental in
the court case, we watch the paleontological team sweat it out in 115-degree
heat, chipping, digging and brushing away at the site until Sue, in all her
80-percent-complete glory, is excavated.
Because Miller shows the meticulous care it takes to get Sue
out of the ground, cleaned off, and put on display at the local Black Hills
Institute, it’s that much more cringe-inducing to see Sue eventually hauled
off by the FBI. As it turned out, Sue’s bones were buried on one of the more
legally complicated parcels of land in the country. The federal government, a
Native American group, and a wily landowner (who had already taken a hefty
check from Larson and his team) all felt they were the rightful owners of the
skeleton. As this situation is wrestled with, however, Sue is locked away in a
government storage facility. Larson recalls going to the lit window of the
facility at night, and staring in at Sue’s crates, feeling the faintest bit of
relief that he can at least know she’s safe. Miller chooses a recreation for
this; it’s effective.
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In an angering turn of events, Larson eventually goes to prison for Sue, for two years. The doc does slow in the middle, as the myriad details of the
court process are described (there’s also less engaging footage available). But
the brisk pace is excavated and restored in the final act when Sue is put up
for auction. I won’t give away how much she sells for, nor who wins her, but
the sequence does prove Sue’s worth — to many, many people. But do those
people love her like a child, as Larson does? A sinking feeling says no.