It’s difficult not to feel a bit nauseated while watching Bomb City.
The true story upon which the film is based is a prime example of the failures of the American justice system as well as the politics of appearances, and is an uncomfortable reminder of how little progress has been made in the last few decades.
Twenty years ago in Amarillo, Texas, tensions between local punks and jocks reached a head. During a confrontation, 17-year-old jock Dustin Camp killed 19-year-old punk musician Brian Deneke in a deliberate hit-and-run attack. Though he was charged with murder, Camp was only found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to probation and a fine of $10,000. The fine, as the film tells us, was eventually dropped. It’s an obvious miscarriage of justice, especially given the eyewitness testimony that Camp yelled, “I’m a ninja in my Caddy,” before hitting Deneke, and then, “I bet he liked that one,” after running him over.
The details of the trial are no easier to stomach. Warren L. Clark, Camp’s defense attorney, painted the punks as violent thugs on the basis of their appearances, and emphasized Camp’s image as a wholesome, clean-cut all-American teen. In the film, Clark—renamed as “Cameron Wilson” and played by Glenn Morshower—begs the jury to consider the fact that Camp has his whole life ahead of him, which is a tactic viewers may recognize from cases such as that of Brock Turner (i.e., cases involving white men, especially those who come from a background of privilege).
The film ends with Marilyn Manson’s post-Columbine speech, in which the shock rocker notes that Deneke was killed once by Camp, and then killed again by the trial, which essentially argued that he deserved to die because of the way he looked. In the face of that assessment, Bomb City seems to want to grant Deneke a second life.
Under the direction of Jameson Brooks, the film is impressively even-handed. There’s no equivocating aside from the arguments of the defense attorney, and a sense of unease is sustained through the entire film via muted visuals and an impressively spare score (written by Cody and Sheldon Chick). Bomb City benefits from that barebones approach, especially given the seriousness of the subject matter. It also begs its audience to challenge whatever preconceptions about appearance they may have, opening with Wilson’s run-down of Deneke’s clothes making him out as a menace.
The action switches back and forth from the punks to the jocks—and to the trial, which is cut in throughout. We see Deneke (played affectingly by Dave Davis) struggle with his insecurities as to his future, just as we see Camp (renamed “Cody Cates” and played by Luke Shelton) grow resentful of his peers as he tries to fit in; he’s more openly aggressive than Deneke, going out of his way to provoke the punks he comes across. It all highlights how judging these people by their looks has always been an inherently flawed metric. If anything, the difference between these people is in the resources they have at their disposal, whether it’s money or public perception.
With that in mind, it’s almost chilling when the final confrontation takes place. The image of all of the jocks gathered in one place is reminiscent of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally of last year, in which white supremacists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis gathered to display their hate. The rally soon became violent, with 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. driving his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing one, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others. Many of the images from the rally are of young white men cut in Camp’s mold, and much of the criticism of the handling of the rally has been of leniency based on the fact that the gathered protesters were white.
Race doesn’t really play a part in Bomb City insomuch as the incident was instigated by and affected white people, but there’s still a relevant point to be made in that privilege can seriously tip the scales when it comes to who can get away with what. The film’s portrayal of police brutality touches upon that as well: When the punks are apprehended for graffiti, the cops use undue force to subdue them, including forcing the barrel of a gun into a girl’s mouth and spraying the boys with hoses. But when it comes to the jocks, the cops break up a bonfire party (complete with underage drinking) by just telling the kids to go home. In Cates’ words, “We run this town.”
Despite taking place two decades ago, Bomb City doesn’t feel like old news; if anything, it’s an even thornier issue now. The mindset that essentially acquitted Camp of murder—not to mention President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” rhetoric—has yet to be retired. To that end, the film serves not only to shed light on Deneke’s case but to prompt further conversation as to the imbalance that’s still so prevalent today.