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“It’s a good American tale, but it had a bad ending,” a low-key voice-over tells us at the beginning of “Dinosaur 13,” a compelling documentary of the long, strange story of Sue. That’s the name given to the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in the badlands of South Dakota in 1990 — only the 13th such carcass ever found, and the most complete. Sue quickly made headlines as a historic discovery, but soon the story changed, and the small-town paleontologists who had found Sue stood by as the bones were carried off by the FBI. A 10-year legal saga was launched, with one central question: Who owns this dinosaur?

Director Todd Douglas Miller spins this tangled web with nicely ratcheted suspense, blending blurry ’90s footage of the discovery (“I think it’s all here!” shouts an astonished voice), contemporary talking-head interviews and a few subtle re-enactments. The lawsuit and trial at the center of the story — the largest criminal case ever tried in South Dakota, we’re told — take up much of the running time, and never grow dull.

In the end, we’re left with a touching portrait of what Sue meant to those who found her (we hear paleontologist Peter Larson explain how, as the case dragged on, he would visit the warehouse where the bones were stored and talk to Sue, through a closed window), and a sense that justice, here, seemed near extinction.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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