2nd Chance, 2022.
Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani.
A documentary chronicling the life of Richard Davis, the man who invented the concealable bulletproof vest, shooting himself 196 times in the course of his career to prove the effectiveness of his vests.
Ramin Bahrani follows up the Oscar-nominated success of The White Tiger with something completely different; a documentary of a fascinatingly contentious figure whose life and times generate no-less compelling drama.
2nd Chance sees Bahrani profile Richard Davis, the inventor of the modern bulletproof vest. Davis created a veritable armour empire out of his company Second Chance, marketing his vests to the police en masse by way of over-the-top promotional videos in which he would famously shoot himself point-blank in the chest while wearing one.
By protecting the police and employing a large portion of the town of Central Lake, Michigan, Richard became a much-loved celebrity in of himself, yet the man’s attempts to innovate his life’s work ultimately led him down a misguided path which brought about his downfall. Temporarily, at least.
Narrated by Bahrani himself – whose disarming-yet-inquisitive interview manner recalls Louis Theroux – the doc is centered around a sit-down with a now-elderly Davis, as he offers his own frequently questionable perspective on events. Namely, why exactly did he put 100,000 lives at risk with one bad business decision?
Davis, an infuriatingly charming and loquacious figure from the moment we meet him, at least appeared to have good intentions at the heart of his cause. Motivated by his father’s own experiences at war and his own alleged encounter with armed criminals in his youth, Davis wanted to produce a smaller, more practical version of a flak jacket that would save lives, and that he certainly did.
With widespread adoption by the police, Davis began documenting the lives his vests saved, which ultimately numbered over 1,000. Though it’s clear that many of these people feel lifelong bonds with Richard for saving them, the more cynical perspective from another subject suggests he conversely views them as “pet saves.”
And while Richard evidently isn’t motivated primarily by money, he’s compelled in his mission by a fascinatingly pathological saviour complex, to the extent that he gifted a gun to any of his “saves” who were also able to kill their attacker during the incident.
It doesn’t take much guessing at all to discern Richard’s political leanings – his absurd propaganda promo movies paint mad leftists as the villains – but for a time the fact remains that he did save the lives of many police, yet also let his mission veer to an altogether uglier place.
Leading up to the scandal that brought Second Chance crashing down are a bevy of “inglorious missteps,” as Richard calls them, where acting out of either narcissism or self-preservation to save his company he covered up wrongdoing by emptying his pockets and delivering threats. Bahrani doesn’t have to do that much digging to find more shady acts and dealings attached to Davis’ name, or in the case of the apparent alleyway shooting that kickstarted the entire business, no tangible record whatsoever.
But it’s when Richard sought to develop a new type of lighter vest comprised of the material Zylon in the early 2000s that his house of cards collapsed. Refusing to pull defective, degrading vests off the market had dire consequences for the company from which it couldn’t recover, though of course, the punishments to him and others were only pecuniary; fault was never admitted and nobody received jail time for such obvious, ultimately fatal negligence.
Though Richard freely discusses the breadth of his life with Bahrani, it’s mere minutes before he starts lying through his teeth. When Bahrani asks him to detail a time that he didn’t tell the truth, Davis shamelessly can’t come up with anything. As such the lengthy interviews with the man are less illuminating of the truth than they are of the man’s true nature, refusing to give much away that isn’t already public knowledge, and making spurious defensive claims without any evidence.
Yet near-equally vital to Richard’s story is ex-cop Aaron Westrick, the 265th person saved by a Second Chance vest, and who quickly fell in with him as his friend and confidante, ultimately working a high-up position in the company.
Despite being saved by Richard’s vest, it’s Aaron who also wore a wire to help build a case against him. Richard naturally considers him a “backstabbing shit,” though Aaron still feels connected enough to the man to consider him a friend. A one-way street, naturally. Contrasted to Richard, Aaron’s overwhelming openness about the situation lends his interviews a welcome balance of perspective, as do interspersions from Richard’s family and those most affected by his actions both good and bad.
The interviews are complimented by some fantastic, stranger-than-fiction archive footage, which detail with both humour and horror Richard’s commitment to his cause, in one instance even having his elderly war vet father empty a gun into his own vested-up chest.
The scene almost ends in disaster when Richard’s PTSD-afflicted father continues to fire blindly and almost wounds his son. In another video, one of the aforementioned compromised Zylon vests very nearly fails one of Richard’s gunshot tests. And then there’s the pièce de résistance; the incriminating wire recording of Richard discussing the Zylon scandal with Aaron.
But Bahrani arguably saves the best for last, concluding his film by moving away from Richard towards a most unexpected interview subject, and an even less-expected meeting. Bahrani’s work as a dramatist serves him incredibly well for this tremendously moving climactic “scene,” even with the prevailing knowledge that Richard, like so many wealthy white men, came out the big winner on the balance of circumstances.
Ramin Bahrani makes a graceful leap to feature documentaries with this fascinating portrait of a complex, troubling figure and those caught up in his overpowering orbit.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.