Since breaking out with Man Push Cart in 2005, through Chop Shop, 99 Houses and even his generally unsuccessful HBO adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, writer-director Ramin Bahrani has proved to have a savvy thermometer applied to the temperature of the American Dream.
Bahrani’s films have a sharply observed sense of the country’s opportunities, including who they’re available to, the personal compromises necessary to achieve them and what the status is for second chances (or in Fitzgeraldian terms, second acts) in American life.
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In some hands, the life of Richard Davis would be an exercise in eccentricity. Marking Bahran’s documentary feature debut, 2nd Chance finds some quirky amusement in Davis’ story, but its focus is much more on the poignancy of his embellished rise-and-fall journey, one that could leave him painted as a hero or as a charlatan. It’s a good story and Bahrani has made a good film, albeit one with a tremendous closing twist that I felt pointed to what could instead have been a great film.
You probably haven’t heard of Richard Davis, but when you watch 2nd Chance, you’ll probably wonder why not. In 1969, after his two pizzerias went up in suspicious flames — just one of countless points on which Davis’ version of the truth comes across as both changeable and questionable — Davis changed course and launched a body armor company.
Part of how he chose to promote what became a prototype for the modern bulletproof vest was by shooting himself in the chest on film. Over 50 years, Davis has shot himself in the chest 192 times — just one of countless points on which outlandish aspects of Davis’ truth come across as inexplicably believable.
Davis’ company, Second Chance, became such a success that he moved production to the town of Central Lake in northwest Michigan and became the region’s largest employer, a figure with great power that he inevitably abused. Over the years, Davis made millions, went through several wives and saved hundreds or thousands of lives — including that of Aaron Westrick, a cop who became one of Davis’ principal allies after a Second Chance vest stopped an assailant’s bullet. However, Davis also… well, it’s all in the documentary. There’s tragedy and absurdity aplenty.
Gregarious and candid to a fault (when he isn’t lying through his teeth), Davis is every filmmaker’s dream subject, and although the director can be heard off-camera challenging him either in the name of factual accuracy or sheer incredulity, it’s easy to see how enamored Bahrani is of him. Even the people in Davis’ life whom he treated the worst, including two ex-wives and some Central Lake residents with less-than-savory interactions, can’t talk about him without admiration that doesn’t feel all that begrudging.
That Davis has certain traits of a right-wing ideologue doesn’t faze Bahrani, because if there’s anything more 21st-century-American than processing the American Dream through the lens of the 2nd Amendment and near-fanatical support of law enforcement, I’m not sure what it is. Despite how contemporary the story is, Bahrani and cinematographer Adam Stone filter it through a very ’70s-style aesthetic, whether it’s the intentionally grungy-and-gritty photography or the beautifully composed talking head segments each in a room more garish and retro in its wood-paneled clutter than the last.
The affection for Davis is clear even before we see that the self-defense icon is something of a filmmaker himself, a gloriously awful filmmaker who advertised his wares with poorly staged, but ballistically ambitious reenactments of his product’s lifesaving moments. Davis’ whole life has been staged and contrived and exaggerated, an artifice that takes different shadings if you know Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) is an executive producer here.
As a feature director, Bahrani made his name on films that utilized a realist, almost documentary-style aesthetic and were marked by an observational refusal to put his finger on the scale when judging his characters. What’s odd is that as a documentarian, Bahrani’s presence is much more evident, whether it’s that voice emerging from behind the camera, the choice to break the documentary into quippy chapters labeled in a ’70s font or the structuring of a story in which Bahrani knows the end and withholds information for a calculating purpose.
With maybe 15 minutes left, Bahrani rolls out a surprise that reframes the story in a way that is beautiful and, in context, a little jaw-dropping. Everybody will have their own preferences, but what bothered me is that the twist is so satisfying and so rich that it probably could have come halfway through the documentary or possibly sooner. It’s not exactly treated as an afterthought, but it’s too good to be placed as a tag at the end of an 89-minute movie, one in which I’d already begun to feel some fatigue with Davis who is, by all accounts, a lot.
One of the chapter titles in 2nd Chance is “Print the Legend,” a reference to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I like how that segment contextualizes the film as an unlikely type of gun-toting western, or midwestern. It’s The Man Who Shot Himself, and I guess that once you’ve fired 192 bullets into vests that you invented, you’re entitled to hog the spotlight. Ceding time for an even better story wouldn’t be Richard Davis’ style, or Bahrani’s in this case — much less the American Way.