Main content

Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story

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, and trace the area's social ills back to World War II, the Vietnam War and recent layoffs.

'A sweeping analysis of the last half century of American society. [The film] sketches the arc of causality from the false economic promise of a Cold War military-industrial boomtown of hard working veterans with well-paying high-tech defense industry jobs, to the anomie and alienation of downwardly mobile children living vacuous lives in a shabby neighborhood. Informative, revealing, and thought-provoking to students... [The film] deserve[s] a wide audience.'-Professor Bruce Caswell, Rowan University, for New Political Science

'Highly Recommended. Both a biography and film study of Shawn Nelson, as well as an urban study of San Diego and Clairemont in particular. The film has relevance to many other communities across the country who are affected by the end of the Cold War and the shutting down of defense bases and plants. An interesting and provocative portrayal of the life of one individual, as well as the effect on an entire community.'-Educational Media Reviews Online

'Brilliant... Each time CUL DE SAC revisits Nelson's low-speed tank chase, he seems less like a standard-issue nut-job loner and more like a military/industrial Frankenstein's monster, haunted by (and hunted for) other people's sins.'-New York Press

'[A] terse, scrupulous film, the footage punctuates a bleak tale of a defense-industry town's boom and bust-once a Cold War capital of airplane and missile production, the San Diego suburb has decayed into a strip-mall wasteland...'-The Village Voice

'The film's Chamber of Commerce footage and implicit indictment of American industry's insensitivity to its labor force is reminiscent of Michael Moore's ROGER AND ME... [CUL DE SAC] provides an often surprising portrait of Nelson and his community, and its most compelling element is the physical presence, testimony, and reactions of Nelson's blue-collar neighbors and acquaintances...who attribute his death to the government's oppressive attitude towards working-class people and believe that his taking that tank was the act of 'someone finally standing up to the callousness and discompassion of the city.''-Journal of American Culture

'Truly extraordinary... a chilling X-ray of the despair in poor white suburbia. The film ambitiously frames its psychological autopsy and class analysis within the historical context of Southern California's aerospace industry-fueled development and decline.' -The Independent Film and Video Monthly

'Thoughtful, unpredictable, and gripping... an engrossing true-life story. More important, it's a brilliant cultural and political essay, packed with insights into grass-roots attitudes about violence and war.'-Christian Science Monitor

'This is a truly poignant film, showing how, to paraphrase Mike Davis, under a thin veneer of Californian sunshine, there lurks the murky suburban reality of the American military-industrial complex.'-Anthropology Review Database (December, 2010)


Main credits

Scott, Garrett (film producer)
Scott, Garrett (film director)
Scott, Garrett (screenwriter)
Olds, Ian (screenwriter)

Other credits

Edited by Ian Olds; camera, Adrian Zaragoza.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

American Studies
Cold War Era
Cultural Studies
Economic Sociology
History (U.S.)
Urban Studies


San Diego; Clairemont; California; Shawn Nelson; methamphetamine; General Dynamics; suburbs; film; video; documentary; military; industrial; National Guard ; defense industry; "Cul de Sac"; Icarus Films;

Related Films

An Injury To One

Reconstructs the long-forgotten murder of union organizer Frank Little…

Malls R Us

From impressive architectural projects to economic, environmental and…