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Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story (2002)

Not Rated | | Documentary | 23 April 2005 (USA)
In May 1995, Shawn Nelson, a 35 year-old plumber from Clairemont, California, emerged from an eighteen foot mine shaft he had dug beneath his backyard in search for gold. An ex-soldier and ... See full summary »




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In May 1995, Shawn Nelson, a 35 year-old plumber from Clairemont, California, emerged from an eighteen foot mine shaft he had dug beneath his backyard in search for gold. An ex-soldier and methamphetamine abuser, he stole a tank from a nearby National Guard armory and went on a rampage through the residential streets of his neighborhood, crushing cars and lampposts until the cops took him down. CUL DE SAC goes far beyond this apparently minor news story and provides extensive political, economic and social context that ties Nelson's life to the larger story of a working class community in decline. Newsreels of a fat, happy San Diego in the 50s and 60s, the perfect representation of middle class aspirations for economic prosperity, are juxtaposed with contemporary images of shuttered defense plants, jobless blue-collar suburbanites, drug abusers, and police on patrol. Statements from police, historians and real estate agents sketch out the rise and fall of this military-fueled boomtown... Written by Anonymous

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Thought Provoking
3 July 2005 | by (San Tropez, France) – See all my reviews

Cul de Sac is a great flick. It's about Shawn Nelson, the unemployed plumber and former Gulf War vet, who took an M-60 tank on a six mile rampage across San Diego. There's footage of it on shows like "World's Most Dangerous Police Chases".

Shawn was suffering from depression after a divorce, drug addiction (meth) and the death of his parents. It also sounds like he had a unhealthy dose of paranoia. Shawn used to tell his buddies and co-workers that one day he'd steal a tank and drive up the steps of city hall. There's some cool interviews. Shawn's older brother talks about how much he misses him and said what a nice guy he was, as he gets choked up. Shawn's buddies were heavy crystal meth users but he spent a lot of his free time teaching them the basics of plumbing so they could find work.

Shawn was pretty out there too: he dug a 25 foot deep mine shaft in the basement of his small San Diego home in a quiet residential neighborhood. He became detached from reality when he believed he was finding gold dust and flakes in the dirt beneath his house. Supposedly, there were small amounts of gold in the rocks so he filed with the city for mineral rights on his property. His claim was denied. Enter disillusionment. Shawn was obviously a heavy crystal user and the goldmining sounds like a tweak thing. Shawn had generators in the basement and had even converted his jacuzzi into a sluice for his goldpanning. His buddies, all former meth addicts, were telling stories about all going down the mineshaft to dig for gold. It became a community tweak project. "Let's go to Shawn's to dig for gold". Meth heads and parolees would stop by Shawn's, do drugs, and then "head down the mine". Shawn's backyard was brimming with mounds of dirt. The neighbors must've been freaked out.

The documentary attempts to link Shawn's erratic methamphetamine-fueled behaviour back to the defence industry in San Diego. During the Cold War bomber crews would use methamphetamine to stay awake and alert for 24 hours straight. The filmmaker suggests San Diego, a post war community made up of military families and defence contractors, was a haven for meth as early as the 1950s.

When his mineral rights were denied by the local government it was probably the last straw for Shawn. His grip on reality seemed to be tenuous at best. His disillusionment now turned to anger. The rest is history. He stole a tank, crushed cars and RV's, knocked over utility poles but eventually tried to cross a concrete highway divider. The tank was stuck. San Diego Police opened the hatch with bolt cutters and shot 35-year-old Shawn Nelson to death. From the helicopter video, it looked like he wanted to cross the divider and drive headlong into oncoming traffic. Based on that, I think the officer's actions were justifiable.

A sad story but in a sense he's gained immortality. No one who has seen the video of his tank rampage will ever forget it!

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