At Chicago’s Field Museum, pride of place now belongs to “Sue,” a skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex discovered in South Dakota in 1990. Dinosaur 13, a documentary about Sue’s strange journey from the Dakota prairie to a perch near Lake Michigan, opens with a bit of information explaining its title, noting that Sue was only the 13th T-Rex skeleton collected, and that of those found before her, “less than 40 percent of each dinosaur was recovered.” Sue doubled that percentage, making her one of the most remarkable, if not the most remarkable, paleontological discoveries of all time. Found by paleontologist Susan Hendrickson—the source of the name—the skeleton was collected by a team led by Peter Larson, one of the founders of the Black Hills Institute Of Geological Research, Inc. Knowing they’d made an extraordinary find, Larson and his team paid Maurice Williams, on whose property they believed they’d found Sue, $5,000 for the bones, which they diligently removed and took back to home base to study. Their troubles began shortly after that.
Working from the book Rex Appeal by Larson and co-author Kristin Donnan, director Todd Douglas Miller offers a clear, though not exactly objective, look both at what made Sue such an important discovery and at the legal quagmire that followed. Then again, Larson and Sue apparently have a way of making partisans out of reporters: A former Unsolved Mysteries producer, Donnan left her job to follow the story, and ended up marrying Larson. It’s often easy to see why, particularly when Larson and the Black Hills Institute staffers wax rhapsodic about Sue as an example of “deep time,” yet point out the specific story her broken and healed bones tell about the hard, painful life she lived millions of years ago.
Yet as committed as the Black Hills Institute team was to studying Sue, they had to watch helplessly as a team led by the FBI took her bones away in a 1992 raid. Miller unpacks the reasons, which are tied to Williams, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, not having the rights to sell anything found on land held in trust by the government. The raid sparked considerable protests from South Dakotans on BHI’s behalf, yet from there, the Institute’s legal issues expanded, thanks to an investigation into whether it removed other fossils illegally, and the possible irregularities involved in how it declared the proceeds from archeological finds it sold in other countries.
Most of those Miller interviews dismiss the subsequent troubles as the vindictive enforcement of byzantine codes. The argument is persuasive, yet Dinosaur 13 is haunted by the nagging sense that only one side of the story is getting told. After all, there is a considerable difference between $5,000 and $8.3 million, Sue’s final cost when Sotheby’s auctioned her off in 1997. (No matter how many people point out that $5,000 was the highest fee paid to a landowner for fossil rights at the time.) Even so, Miller effectively suggests that Larson and his team got a raw deal. That’s partly thanks to Matt Morton’s emotional score, and artful shots of the dig site and other locations, but mostly because of the passion of everyone interviewed, many of whom tear up while recalling the raid and its aftermath. When Larson recounts driving to the warehouse housing Sue’s bones during the dispute, just to look at the boxes and make sure she was there, then holding conversations with her, it seems perfectly in character, just part of a lifelong habit of looking through the past and erasing the distance of time.