On a foggy morning in 1990, an amateur paleontologist named Susan Hendrickson set off for a workaday exploration of South Dakota’s Black Hills and came back to her base camp having made a historical discovery: the 65-million-year-old bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex, the largest, most complete and beautifully preserved dinosaur skeleton ever found.
That relic — known as “Sue,” named in Hendrickson’s honor — later became famous. But the journey from a dusty South Dakota cliff side to its final resting place in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History was anything but smooth. In the taut, emotionally gripping documentary “Dinosaur 13,” filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller meticulously re-creates seven eventful, tense and finally heartbreaking years, starting with the thrill of Hendrickson’s initial discovery of a few vertebrae. The story continues, wending through byzantine legal battles, Kafka-esque custody hearings, appalling governmental overreach and, finally, the simple love story between a man and his fossil.
The man in question is Peter Larson, who with his brother, Neal, owns the Black Hills Institute, a museum and commercial fossil concern in Hill City, S.D. Peter and Neal were with Hendrickson the day she found Sue, and purchased the T. rex remains from the man who owned the land. The deal completed, the Larson brothers carefully took the bones back to Hill City, where for three years they carefully preserved a skeleton that included a nearly intact skull, complete with an imposing set of fanglike teeth.
In the hopes of making Sue a centerpiece of the Institute, thereby improving the fortunes of tiny Hill City, the Larsons had just finished the daunting job of separating Sue’s skull and pelvic bone when they were paid a visit by dozens of FBI agents and the South Dakota National Guard, who informed them that they had run afoul of arcane tribal and federal property laws. “Dinosaur 13” begins as a persuasive testimony to the exhilarating power of paleontology, but quickly turns into a study in ambition, greed and breathtaking abuse of power, as the dinosaur’s remains become a political and philosophical football — not only between the big bad Feds and the spirited small-town locals, but also between professionals and amateurs, and academics and commercial dealers.
It could all make for a narrative as dry as, well, dinosaur bones. But Miller wisely makes Sue tantamount to a living character in “Dinosaur 13,” anthropomorphizing the skeleton along with its most passionate Hill City partisans — especially Larson, who, as his ex-wife recalls, fell passionately in love with the charismatic theropod. “Pete and that dinosaur were made for each other,” she recalls wistfully. If Miller goes for the emotional jugular a little too obviously with a heart-rending musical score and teary interviews, the gambit is largely justified by a story that, although it was covered in the national media at the time, still seems infuriatingly unresolved and fundamentally unjust.
Still, “Dinosaur 13” doesn’t have an entirely unhappy ending. The story of Sue, and now Miller’s lively retelling of it, has kept the deep past alive in vivid, profoundly meaningful ways. Watching Larson and his colleagues as they dust and scrape and flick their way to their next discoveries, it’s clear that a kind of communion is still possible, between species and across the eons, that even the most dunder-headed bureaucrats, petty judges and wily sharpies can’t undo.
★ ★ ★
PG. At West End Cinema. Contains mild thematic elements, profanity and brief smoking.