Review: 'Dinosaur 13' ★★★

'Dinosaur 13'

Terry Wentz, from left, Peter Larson, Susan Hendrickson and Neal Larson in "Dinosaur 13." (Lionsgate / August 13, 2014)

In 1997, with considerable help from McDonald's and the Walt Disney Corp., Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History outbid (among others) the Smithsonian Institution and bought the bones of the 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex known as Sue. The dinosaur skeleton, 80 percent complete, made her reassembled big-city debut in 2000.

The affectionate but quietly troubling documentary "Dinosaur 13" deals with that part of the story, in due course. But its heart lies squarely with the South Dakotans who found her, years earlier, and then lost her.

Producer-director-editor Todd Douglas Miller based his film on the nonfiction account "Rex Appeal" co-written by the movie's primary subject, paleontologist Peter Larson. Larson is a man hopelessly in love, and his feelings for Sue guide this bittersweet narrative front to back.

Under a hot sun in 1990 Larson's colleague Susan Hendrickson discovered the remains of a T.rex on what turned out to be a highly disputed piece of land. On a handshake deal, Larson and others affiliated with the Black Hills Institute of Hill City, S.D., paid $5,000 for the bones. The landowner, Maurice Williams, sold them without consulting the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the dig site was located on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, and the land was being held in trust for Williams.

Then a complicated situation became more so. A federal seizure of the bones involved dozens of FBI agents. Sue became the dinosaur in the middle of a mighty custody battle, with no mediator in sight. Free-lance journalist Kristin Donnan came to Hill City to cover the story and fell in love her subject. (She wrote "Rex Appeal" with Larson, now her ex.) These and other players in "Dinosaur 13," chief among them Neal Larson, Peter's brother and fellow paleontologist, speak movingly of how the court battle dragged on through much of the 1990s.

There are pretty clear heroes and villains in this tale, according to Miller. Williams ended up pocketing millions, tax-free, when the bones ended up in auction at Sotheby's. Larson did some time in prison, on dubious charges. The South Dakotans interviewed agree that if Sue had to end up anywhere other than Hill City, the Field Museum was a pretty good place. The film's musical score by Matt Morton does its best to smother "Dinosaur 13" with a non-stop wash of generalized tension and emotion. But Sue wins out, and the film is worth seeing, if only for the reminder of how badly justice can miscarry if enough millions are spent by the U.S. government.

"Dinosaur 13" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, language and brief smoking)

Running time: 1:35

Opens: Friday. Also available via video on demand.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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