We’ll never know exactly why U.S. Army veteran and unemployed plumber Shawn Nelson decided to drive a stolen tank through the residential streets of Clairmont, California, in 1995, tearing through parked cars as though they were paper. His grand plan to make a public statement on the steps of City Hall was derailed by an unsuccessful excursion across a freeway median (even 60- ton tanks aren’ t unstoppable, evidently) and a well-aimed policeman’s bullet.
What we do have is this incisive documentary, which portrays Nelson as the crystal meth-addicted son of a bomber manufacturer in a defense-industry town that hit hard times after the Cold War ended — and never quite bounced back. That this is a “war story,” as the provocative subtitle puts it, is made clear through the film’s brilliantly deployed footage of pilots dropping Clairmont-made bombs on Pacific targets during World War II; of Clairmont’s postwar rise as a military boomtown; and of Nelson’s half-hour rampage itself, wherein the disgruntled veteran broke into a National Guard armory to start up his own private war. Despite the central ambiguity of Nelson’s mission, Cul de Sac makes its subject’s dead end — his treacherous path from military training to the point of no return — appear disturbingly well marked.