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If, at the end of your days, you were shown a nifty graph determining the average of all the positive deeds and negative acts you inflicted on others during your life, would you be considered more of a hero or villain?
Pointing his camera along the narrow divide that sometimes exists between the two ends, Ramin Bahrani’s brilliantly inquisitive documentary “2nd Chance” explores the mythos of a self-made tycoon allergic to accountability, but whose proud creation has undeniably saved numerous lives.
This remarkably balanced non-fiction piece takes its multi-layered title from the name of the once prosperous company founded by Richard Davis, the infamous inventor of the modern bulletproof vest. Bahrani, whose narrative work (“The White Tiger,” “99 Homes”) centers individuals on the overlooked margins of society, finds in Davis a subject worthy of ambivalent scrutiny through which the filmmaker can filter larger issues pertinent to several pathological American obsessions — success at all cost, rabid and unscrupulous capitalism, and the deadly power of guns.
Davis’ apocryphal legend of valiant feats begins with a 1975 tall tale of how he, a lowly pizzeria owner, defeated three armed bandits in an alleyway with the brawn of his weapon and his ability to discharge it effectively and accurately. But the more the nimble Bahrani probes at the veracity of every word that comes out of the now-elderly Davis — or of his younger self in archival footage — the more foggy and difficult to substantiate his accounts become.
Chronicling his business’ rise from grassroots marketing, traveling to police stations in the area to offer his oft-concealable body armor, to the fabricating the protective garment worn by former president George W. Bush, “2nd Chance” consistently pokes holes in Davis’ official narrative. Bahrani isn’t only preoccupied with disproving how or if certain events occurred but also in the psychology of his subject’s intentions.
Throughout the documentary, the director intersperses different versions of the same scenario filmed over the years: Davis shooting himself at close range on camera to demonstrate the effectiveness of his product. In the repeated performance of such dramatic action, Davis tries to molds the truth to his advantage. It’s not that the vest doesn’t function as it should — it clearly does — but he believes no one could perceive him as anything else than honest if he is willing to go to such lengths to prove his trust and commitment to his product.
These are grand spectacles of confidence to entice the non-believers and to reassure those who already worship at his altar. One of those acolytes is Aaron Westrick, whose life was saved by the Second Chance armor and who became loyal to Davis’ cult and an employee of the company when it settled and revitalized Central City, Michigan, as its largest job provider.
One telling and frightening breakthrough comes as Davis reveals that the dark mentality that nurtures his supposedly life-saving philosophy isn’t dissimilar — though more outspoken in its extremism — than the perverse moral righteousness that we can so easily identify with current Republican right-wing ideologies. Besides keeping track of all the officers who survived a shooting thanks to his vests, Davis would also specifically reward those who had executed their attacker. In his eyes, anyone who shoots at a cop is better off dead.
There’s no need for Bahrani to dig explicitly into Davis’ political affiliations when everything about his conduct and values reveals it. He’s a vintage poster child for what’s known today as the Blue Lives Matter crowd, well before their modified American flag became synonymous with an ideology of impunity under the guise of law and order that Davis undoubtedly shares. The satirical low-budget movies and commercials he wrote, directed and produced to promote his product also illuminate his feelings on police brutality and the media’s interrogation of it. Bonus points to Bahrani for holding back on making the kind of facile comparisons to Trump that could draw from Davis’ story.
There’s something fittingly American about creating wearable shields to withstand a bullet’s impact rather than working to prevent those situations from happening. Davis absolves the wide availability of guns of any guilt, choosing to attack the symptoms rather than the root cause. It’s not unlike teaching school children how to barricade themselves in a classroom, anticipating that a shooting will inevitably happen, to avoid regulating the destructive pride and joy of a segment of the population.
Davis’ story seems ripe for a sensational, multi-episode streaming event à la “Tiger King,” but in Bahrani’s thorough and tactful hands, it yields a fascinating, infuriating but eventually touching piece of non-fiction storytelling. That Bahrani himself is of Middle Eastern (specifically Iranian) descent doesn’t deter Davis from spewing his disregard for the people killed during U.S. military interventions in the region; the issue itself is never brought up specifically on camera, even as the filmmaker points that the U.S. invaded Iraq despite the fact that it had no connection to the 9/11 attacks. Davis, of course, made millions in contracts with the U.S. military.
Conspicuously present as the narrator — who, during interviews, interrogates the deceitful magnate about his many scandals and mishaps with the law that he claims so much to respect — Bahrani pushes back when he knows Davis is lying, asking to see documents or confronting his subject with voice recordings of his misdeeds. Seasoned doc editor Aaron Wickenden (“Hail Satan?” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) expertly assembles a thoroughly researched and sourced portrait that borders on the absurd but maintains the humanity of this character, via input from his ex-wives and former business partners, as it pushes for an ambiguous assessment of a person at his best and worst.
What’s most powerful about Bahrani’s latest is that the notion of a second opportunity, of a renewed lease for reinvention and for meaningful change, ultimately doesn’t refer to Davis, who is unwilling to accept responsibility for any of his actions. It’s two other men — connected by a situation of extreme violence that altered their individual journeys — who are brought together on screen in an act of forgiveness. The surprising resolution to “2nd Chance” underscores that our behavior in previous stages of our lives doesn’t make us irredeemable by default. People are more than the consequences of a singular decision.
Some will reconsider their choices. Others, like Davis, will always refuse to.
“2nd Chance” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.