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CUL DE SAC: A SUBURBAN WAR STORY (director/writer: Garrett Scott; screenwriter: Ian Olds; cinematographer: Adrian Zaragoza; editor: Ian Olds; music: ; cast: Shawn Nelson; Runtime: 55; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Garrett Scott; Icarus Films; 2002)

“Engaging documentary.

Reviewed by Dennis SchwartzGarrett Scott’s(“Occupation: Dreamland”) engaging documentary is set in a working class suburb of Clairemont, California, located just outside of San Diego. It tells a weird tale about the 35-year-old unemployed plumber and former army man, Shawn Nelson, who on May 17, 1995, stole a National Guard tank from his local armory and for 23-minutes drove it on a joy ride through town crashing cars and lampposts until his tank got stuck on the highway centerpiece and he was slain by the police when he refused to surrender.

By showing footage of the incident, talking with his distraught brother, neighbors, police and friends, the bizarre incident moves into political, economic and social territory. It relates the promising Shawn’s demise to the background tale of his working-class community and its economic decline since the end of the Cold War. The filmmaker tells of the town’s post-war development and boom in the 1950s after the Korean conflict, when it developers built cheap Leave-it to-Beaver houses for the returning veterans to live in while many worked in the nearby defense plants of General Dynamics and enjoyed middle-class status. It also sadly tells of how many of the uneducated lower-income locals got addicted to speed when their economic position went into decline. Shawn, we are told by those who hung around with him, only occasionally smoked pot and used methamphetamine. His problems escalated when he dug a seventeen foot mine shaft beneath his backyard, with the help of his druggy pals, searching for gold, and the town would not allow him to file a claim for a gold mine.

The gist of the pic has the sympathetic to the subject Scott try to understand the causes behind the tragedy, and to see if it’s possible to link the town’s military industrial complex involvement to Shawn’s crazy act. It’s a worthwhile project, that gives the viewer much to ponder that wasn’t gained by just viewing the helicopter footage of the incident or of a San Diego television news show’s home invasion story of a visit to Shawn’s mine shaft and talk with his friends. The talks with those who knew him, has everyone interviewed going out the way to say Shawn was a good guy. Why he cracked is anyone’s guess. The film only uncovers surface material and fails to probe deeper. But as the Bard once said, something in Denmark stinks and this doc seems to confirm something about suburban Clairemont’s close ties with the military industrialist complex is what makes things smell rotten.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”