A chronicle of the legal trials and emotional tribulations that ensued after paleontologist Pete Larson and his crew at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research unearthed “Sue,” the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, Dinosaur 13 distinguishes itself mostly by virtue of the inherently compelling story it recounts and the generally unobtrusive way the filmmakers tell it. This is basically a standard-issue talking-heads doc, with only Thomas Petersen’s 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography and a bluntly effective score by Matt Morton offering much in the way of aesthetic interest. And when the film goes so far as to suggest, however indirectly, that a reporter merely doing his job is near-villainous just because it led to an unwelcome outcome for Larson and company, that’s a clear sign that director Todd Douglas Miller’s approach is agenda-driven. Still, Miller knows he has a gripping tale on his hands—a David-versus-Goliath chronicle of small-town Americans at war with the federal government, Native Americans, and duplicitous landowning forces—and modulates his filmmaking style to try to tell it as clearly as possible. Prone as he is to gloss over esoteric legal details, at least he has a consistent handle on the emotional realities of this twisty tale moment by moment: the thrill of discovery, the depths of powerlessness, and seemingly everything else in between.
It’s for this reason that Larson—the man who oversaw Sue’s 1990 excavation and restoration, and for whom this became an obsession—emerges as Dinosaur 13’s emotional center. Larson begins the film by explicating on the profound joy he feels in being out in the field digging for fossils, wide-eyed testimony that Miller accompanies with appropriately cosmic stock footage. At one point, his wife, Kristin Donnan, talks about how, when the going got really tough for Larson’s hopes to reclaim Sue, he went so far as to go to the site where Sue’s bones were temporarily held and actually spoke to those bones—a poignant illustration of the depths of his devotion to his discovery. To some extent, Petersen’s use of a wide aspect ratio and Morton’s emphatic score takes its cues from Larson’s passion—the expansive frame more given to exuding an openness to natural environments, the music expressing perhaps more than Larson himself is willing to outwardly show (he remains a generally stoic camera subject throughout). Perhaps that’s why its final shot—of Larson going back out into the desert, pickax in hand, in an extreme wide shot—is as surprisingly affecting as it is. Larson may not have ended up with exactly the outcome he desired (and the film vehemently argues that he deserved better than the outcome he got), but his love of fossil-hunting at least remained thankfully undimmed through it all.