One of the most impressive things about “Dinosaur 13," Todd Miller’s moving documentary that premiered January 16 at Sundance and was immediately snapped up for North America by Lionsgate and CNN Films, 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.
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.
The Sundance Film Festival has a remarkable track record for showcasing documentaries that wind up in the awards race at year's end, and "Dinosaur 13" may well be one of them.