In May 1995, the San Diego area was witness to one of the weirdest criminal activities in recent memory. An unemployed plumber named Shawn Nelson stole a tank from a National Guard compound and drove it wildly through the streets of the suburb of Clairemont, running down light posts, fire hydrants and parked vehicles (but, thankfully, not any people). Nelson gave the police a lengthy chase before he got the tank stuck on a highway divider. The police surrounded the immobilized tank, pried it open with bolt cutters and ordered Nelson to come out. When Nelson refused, the police opened a fatal volley of gunfire into the tank.
This bizarre story, and the equally deranged circumstances which brought it about, is the subject of the documentary “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story.” While one would imagine the unusual demise of Shawn Nelson would be enough to accommodate the needs of any movie, filmmaker Garrett Scott strangely decided to pad the film with ill-chosen and frequently incoherent additions which dilute the potency of the intended focus.
Shawn Nelson was only 35 when he was killed, yet his brief life was riddled with considerable problems. An Army veteran who left the service to become a plumber, Nelson fell into a severe drug and alcohol habit. He also became obsessed with the notion that his backyard was home to a gold mine, and the surplus of his time became devoted to digging a mineshaft in search of the buried treasure. (The film estimates the shaft went either 17 or 25 feet into the ground–no one seems to have an accurate measurement.) Nelson’s pre-occupation with his gold hunt led him to file for a mineral rights permit with the municipal government.
Unfortunately, Nelson’s numerous demons eventually overpowered him. Physically and financially bankrupt, facing a foreclosure on his mortgage and unable to pay for his various addictions, Nelson planned to make one final statement against a world which he felt betrayed him. Recalling his Army training and remembering the National Guard had a compound in his neighborhood, Nelson stole the tank and went on his destructive joyride.
In a fairly conspicuous oversight, the film never explains how he was able to get the tank away from the National Guard, and no one from the National Guard is interviewed here. “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story” does interview Nelson’s brother and friends, nearly all of whom (it seems) share some of his pharmaceutical or drinking habits. Their recollections of Nelson are, on the whole, charitable: clearly the man had acute problems, yet the people interviewed here are kind enough to point out Nelson’s finer traits and kindness (most notably allowing the neighborhood kids to play in the dirt piles dug up from his mine and his offer to help train other drug addicts in learning how to become a plumber). Nelson was not a stupid man, by any stretch, as his backyard mine was a model of professional engineering and his bookcase was packed with volumes on mining; that he would consider filing for mineral rights, while seemingly ludicrous on the surface, was actually an intelligent idea if the brief possibility of gold on his property actually proved to be correct. Watching the film, it is heartbreaking to realize no one (either Nelson or anyone around him) was able to channel his talents properly.
Unfortunately, “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story” has problems concentrating on the Shawn Nelson story. For no very clear reason, the film decides that it needs to provide in-depth insight on the Clairemont community’s history. A boom suburb following World War II and the Korean War, the community was home to many returning servicemen who found work in the local defense manufacturing industry. But when that industry slumped and then departed from the area in the 1980s, Clairemont’s fortunes reversed and it became a less-than-desirable neighborhood. However, none of this information relates to Shawn Nelson’s self-destructive fate (he was a plumber, remember?) and the film would have been better served if this background data was limited to a few minutes rather than approximately one-third of the running time (complete with snooze-inducing interviews of local bigwigs and out-of-nowhere newsreel footage of post-war Germany, the 1952 capture of Seoul by US troops and the bombing of Phuoc Thanh by US Air Force jets in the 1960s).
The film’s view of contemporary Clairemont also needs to be addressed. I am not familiar with this community and I have no illusions that this is a neighborhood with its share of problems. However, the film gives the impression that everyone who lives here are drug addicts and drunks. Most egregious is the sight-seeing tour given by an Officer George Eliseo of the local constabulary. Officer Eliseo drives about highlighting the local attractions, pointing to the house where an alcoholic lives, then pointing to where a meth addict dwells, then pointing out where another druggie hangs his hat. What’s the matter, aren’t there any non-addicted, decent, hard-working individuals living in Clairemont? And if Officer Eliseo was serious about community beautification, he might want to excuse himself from the premises: the disheveled, paunchy patrolman is in quick need of a decent haircut and a girdle.
The story of Shawn Nelson is a genuine tragedy and it is a shame “Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story” loses track of the poor man’s self-powered crash. Hopefully, a better film on this intriguing subject can be made.