Those looking for a classic instance of the little guy being screwed by big government need look no further than “Dinosaur 13.” Todd Douglas Miller’s engrossing documentary moves from the triumphant discovery of what remains the world’s largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton through its abrupt seizure by feds, a criminal trial, then finally its sale to the highest bidder on the auction block. While paleontology wars might not be a theme easily sexed up for arthouse exposure, this potent exercise in nonfiction storytelling will have considerable appeal for broadcasters.
Brothers Peter and Neal Larson grew up fascinated by fossils, pursued the relevant higher education, and opened South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research to excavate, prepare and sell such artifacts (as well as museum-quality replicas). In 1990 one of their volunteers, Susan Hendrickson, came upon apparent sections of T-Rex vertebrae emerging from a cliffside. To the exhilaration of the Larsons and their team, what they uncovered during the next 17 days was so impressive it is still considered by some “the greatest paleontological find in history.”
It would also be a boon for tiny Hill City, where they were based — and where they planned to build a natural history museum that would draw visitors from afar with the lure of “Sue,” as the dinosaur was dubbed in Hendrickson’s honor. But two years into the process of painstakingly preparing the remains for eventual assembly and display, the Institute was invaded out of the blue by dozens of FBI and National Guard personnel. Claiming “Sue” was stolen from federal land — though the Larsons had bought her outright from the owner of the property she was found on — the interlopers hurriedly packed up the dino and stored its parts at a university (the brothers’ alma mater) 30 miles away. Townspeople furiously protested, and national media attention focused on the “custody battle,” yet no actual criminal charges were filed for several years.
When they finally were, they seemed preposterously overscaled. Even one of the prosecutors admits here that the “logistics of the case were incomprehensible.” While the vast majority of the charges were eventually dismissed, a judge with an apparent grudge (the accused had twice requested he be replaced) handed one plaintiff a stiff sentence — to be served at a federal pen alongside the likes of Timothy McVeigh and John Gotti — for failure to fill out customs forms in instances where people rarely do, and in situations not at all related to the “Sue” brouhaha.
Curiously, while the skeleton was seized on the grounds that landowner Maurice Williams did not have the right to sell it (his property falling into a murky netherland of government/tribal/private rights), in the end he was somehow free nonetheless to sell “Sue” for a cool $8.4 million via Sotheby’s auction. Fortunately, she wound up at a reputable public institution (Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History). But the loss to the Institute, Hill City and South Dakota as a whole remains bitter.
It’s a heartrending tale, duly inspired by Peter Larson’s print memoir. One does miss input from figures who only look worse from their lack of first-person representation here: Williams (who died in 2011, but is glimpsed in archival video); then-acting U.S. attorney Kevin Shieffer; and U.S. District Court judge Richard Battey.
Smoothly told pic is well handled in all departments, with a strong score by Matt Morton and some impressive landscape shots from d.p. Thomas Peterson (although those aside, the widescreen format seems unnecessary here). Brief, impressionistic re-enactments are mostly low-key enough not to dilute the film’s nonfiction tenor.