Life sure wasn’t easy for a dinosaur named Sue. As revealed by the skeleton, excavated in 1990 by the paleontologist Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute for Geological Research in South Dakota, Sue’s journey through the late Cretaceous period had been fraught by an unusual number of broken bones and other injuries. Almost 70 million years later, these magnificent remains — constituting the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found — would embark on another journey, this time through a labyrinthine legal battle that would leave their caretakers equally scarred.
A stirring blend of love story, courtroom drama and professional tragedy, Dinosaur 13 (before Sue, only a dozen T. rex skeletons had been discovered) is a nonfiction weepie that manages to skirt its most troubling questions. When the FBI, suspecting theft from federally owned land, conducted a 1992 raid on the Black Hills Institute (a commercial supply house of fossils and minerals), its seizure of Sue and other specimens ignited a public outcry. The ensuing fight for custody of the tyrannosaur — and, later, for Larson’s freedom and that of his colleagues — would place multiple federal agencies and an Indian tribe at the center of years of legal action and heated debate.
Faced with a dauntingly dry regulatory tangle (which eventually flowered into a jaw-droppingly complex criminal trial and a bewildering prison term for Larson), the director, Todd Douglas Miller, extracts a clear — and clearly lopsided — narrative from the confusion. Using unobtrusive dramatizations, lively archival film and interviews with not-too-talky heads, he holds us tight to the thread of the story. But it’s his use of emotion, relentless and brilliant, that really keeps us from straying.
“Peter was in love with that dinosaur,” Marion Zenker, the institute’s office manager, tells us; and here is Larson, moist-eyed and denim-clad, heartbreakingly affirming his devotion. Sympathetic witnesses to the seizure, including the photographer and filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, dignify his pain, as does moving video footage of distressed crowds and impassive National Guardsmen. Even the journalist Kristin Donnan, invited by Larson to cover the story, confesses to falling in love with her host.
Maybe his director did, too, just a little. Silver-haired, bespectacled and with a cowboy-professor air, the film’s homey hero oozes underdog charm. Yet however enamored, Miller does his story (based on Donnan and Larson’s 2002 memoir) a disservice by failing to open it up, even slightly, to the tension between academic paleontologists and their commercial counterparts. Preferring not to dig into the ethics of for-profit fossil collecting and the auctioning off of prehistory to the highest bidder — or even to cast a questioning eye over the institute’s operations — he cedes point of view to his subject and throws balance out the window.
In fairness, a number of those approached by Miller either declined or were unable to appear in the movie, but the taint of bias lingers. Dinosaur 13 may not be the best documentary, but as a scientific soap opera, it’s a doozy.
Director: Todd Douglas Miller.
Screenwriter: Adapted from “Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law and My Life,” by Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan.
A Lionsgate and CNN Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. Playing at: area theaters.