The fate of some very old bones may not sound like compelling cinema, but when they compose the 65-million-year-old skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex that was 41 feet long and 18 feet high back in the day, all bets are off.
“Dinosaur 13,” the story of a controversial T. rex named Sue and the havoc her ancient bones wreaked on numerous lives, turns out to be an altogether splendid documentary. It’s not only a rich, poignant human story of intense joy followed by unending heartache but also has more complex ramifications dealing with issues such as governmental overreach and the long-standing, often bitter rift between academic and commercial fossil collectors.
Director Todd Douglas Miller, who also edited, had access to hundreds of hours of previously unseen video footage and interviewed people on all sides of the issues involved. For many of these individuals, their connection to Sue led to both the best and worst moments of their lives. “It’s a brilliant story,” says “The Cove” director Louie Psihoyos, who covered it as a National Geographic photographer, “if you didn’t have to live it like the Larsons did.”
Paleontologist Peter Larson and his brother Neal were part of a group that was scouting for possible fossils on Maurice Williams’ ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota when car trouble mandated they head to town for repairs. A colleague, Susan Hendrickson, decided to stay, and what she came across while they were gone made scientific history.
It was the 13th Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever collected (hence the film’s title). It proved to be the largest and most complete T. rex ever, with 80% of the skeleton recovered, including the rarely seen skull. The excavation took 17 days in 115-degree heat, the painstaking preservation and restoration process took almost two years, and then all hell broke loose.
Museum geeks since they were kids, the Larsons had planned to use Sue (named after discoverer Hendrickson) as the centerpiece of a planned Black Hills Museum in their tiny town of Hill City, population 535. They had told rancher Williams of their plan and paid him $5,000 for use of the skeleton.
Those plans were dashed on May 14, 1992, when a small army of law enforcement operatives (35 FBI agents, 20 National Guardsmen) descended on Hill City and took possession of Sue and all supporting evidence about the find, some 10 tons of material in all, leaving Peter Larson and his team devastated, frustrated and confused. And no wonder.
As what ABC anchor Sam Donaldson called “the custody battle of the century” unfolded, it developed that all kinds of people had their own axes to grind about Sue, starting with acting U.S. Atty. Kevin Schieffer, who seemed to have pursued the case in part to get publicity for himself.
Also, the question of exactly who owned the land Sue was found on could not have been more problematic. Williams had a claim to it, but so did his tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux, and since his ranch turned out to be held in trust by the federal government, they got into the act as well.
It took years for all these issues to be resolved, but “Dinosaur 13" explains it all. It also explores a further case the government brought against the Larsons for what authorities claimed was a huge international fossil-selling conspiracy.
In a situation that echoes the governmental overreach that was at the heart of “The Internet’s Own Boy,” if Larson had been convicted of all charges he would have had to pay a $13-million fine and serve a sentence of 353 years, more time behind bars, he notes, than multiple murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.
One dynamic behind all these charges was the ever-widening divide between academic paleontologists and private commercial collectors like the Larsons, who get no respect from the establishment even though their field technique and willingness to share were often exemplary.
While the issues and stories involved in “Dinosaur 13" have so many ramifications that Miller has said he could have done a miniseries on the story, he’s given this documentary treatment the drive of a thriller.
His focus, finally, is squarely on Larson, who fell in love with both paleontology and Sue. Though the director makes sure that all sides have their say, it’s hard not to agree with the film’s conclusion that the consequences of that passion turned out to be considerably more severe than they had any right to be.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Playing at: Sundance Cinemas, West Hollywood
Video on Demand on Friday