2nd Chance premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
Ramin Bahrani is a director known primarily for fiction filmmaking. He made the Fahrenheit 451 adaptation for HBO. Last year, his script for The White Tiger was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA. It perhaps does not come as a surprise then that Bahrani was initially approached by producers to make the story of Richard Davis, the Michigan man who developed the modern bulletproof vest, into a fiction film. And Davis’ tale could potentially make for an engaging fiction, given how outlandish aspects of it are.
This film could focus on the tensions between Davis and the figures around him. His multiple ex-wives. The police officer whose life was saved by Davis’ body armor and eventually came to work in Davis’ company, but whose moral compass is strictly opposed to Davis’. The worker in the body armor factory who identified the potentially life-threatening error in the vest’s design, was silenced, and who eventually lost her job due to a medical condition.
These stories could be colored by Davis’ embellished sense of purpose, his somewhat deluded mission to be a savior. A character who perhaps holds in the back of his mind the urge to become Dirty Harry, Davis used his bulletproof vest company as a means of cataloguing the people he saved. Davis appears proud of his many “saves,” and, even if he is reluctant to admit it on camera, he seems genuinely broken up about the fact that his company ultimately failed to save lives.
The transgressions of him and his company become the focal point of 2nd Chance, a doc. which moves from a character study of an idiosyncratic Midwestern man with an entrepreneurial spirit to a damning portrait of a company steeped in malpractice. The story on its own is intriguing in its oddity. Where the documentary stumbles is its inability to interrogate Davis as a figure. When it comes to uncovering the truth behind Davis’ half-truths or downright lies, Bahrani and his team deliver. As far as working to really understand this man’s psyche, which is a goal evident in Bahrani’s narration, the film falls short.
I didn’t realize this shortcoming at first, as I was drawn to this character (it is why I decided to watch the doc in the first place). Davis was known not only for creating the bulletproof vest, but also for demonstrating the effectiveness of that vest by shooting himself at point blank range. Over and over again. It is easy for one to see some of this footage and desire to know more about the mind of a man who would willfully put his life in danger for the sake of selling body armor.
It wasn’t until the epilogue that I realized Davis’ presence in this doc was almost a distraction. In a diversion from the main focus, the movie moves to the story of a police officer and the perpetrator of a breaking and entering, two people who ended up shooting each other. Both men survived and went on to live fruitful lives, but both also appear intensely regretful for what transpired. This story exists in an emotional space that nothing else in the doc approaches, making it a strange coda.
Ironically, Davis, as a central figure, bogs down his own movie. His insistence on his version of the truth and his lack of open self-reflection leave his interviews hollow. There is little a documentarian can do in this case but to try and verify or debunk the story Davis tells. But as the film gets lost in these details, the broader picture of what Davis and those around him represent disappears from view.
Davis presents contradictory tensions within his own character. He has a strict desire to save while also showing a cold belief in ultimate retribution. His case illuminates a specific slice of Americana, a cross-section of conservative American ideals—entrepreneurship, bootstrapping, patriotic heroism, law and order, etc. And Bahrani’s narration hints at a desire to suss out broader social commentary out of Davis’ unique case. But it doesn’t come to fruition.
Even if it had, how much could it possibly say? Again, the closest we get is this spectacular epilogue B-story, which presents some humanity behind both sides of the gun. But the story of Davis and his company is too specific. Bahrani does his best to spin this tangled mess of a tale into something bigger than itself, and the result is fairly muddled.
2nd Chance: B-
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)