Sundance Review: Ramin Bahrani Tests the Conscience of the American Id in 2nd Chance

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The post Sundance Review: Ramin Bahrani Tests the Conscience of the American Id in 2nd Chance appeared first on Consequence.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The Pitch: America is a land of mythmaking: if you’re savvy and lucky (and often, unscrupulous) enough, you can carve out a legend of your own design. That’s what happened to Richard Davis, the oddball inventor of the bulletproof vest, who spun a tall tale about self-defense in a Michigan alleyway into a million-dollar company selling protective body armor to America’s police and military forces.

A blustering showman with no small sense of spectacle, Davis hawked his wares with, as one flyer declares in bold letters, “SEX & VIOLENCE”: amateur films that featured everything from comedy skits to bikini-clad women to schlocky fictional shootouts that make Samurai Cop look like Dirty Harry. Oh, and he shot himself with a gun on camera to prove that the vest worked… 192 times over fifty years.

Naturally, this kind of self-mythologizing has a deeper story behind it, one perfect for the documentary debut of Ramin Bahrani, who’s made a name for himself in probing, observational narrative works about the intangibility of the American Dream (Man Push Cart, 99 Homes).

Here, he turns that same eye to Davis, whose old-school carnival barker bluster hides a host of misdeeds: neglect, fraud, infidelity, and so much more. But what do you do with a man with so many transgressions under his name, but who may have also saved thousands of lives with his vests? How do you balance those particular scales?

Do You Feel Lucky? “The truth is the most fragile and elusive thing in the universe,” Davis says early on in one of his outlandish promo videos, before tearing a placard with the word “TRUTH” emblazoned on it in half. You couldn’t ask for a blunter, more direct metaphor for Davis’ particular brand of enigmatic narcissism, and yet there it is on a silver platter.

Both in archival footage and interviews in the present, Davis is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream of a subject: quirky, wily, unexpectedly funny. And most of all, confident — he loves to talk, especially about himself.

The more he goes, the wilder and more unbelievable his stories become, from the 1975 pizza-delivery holdup turned shootout that inspired the body armor in the first place to his claim that he couldn’t have burned down his pizzeria for the insurance money “because I didn’t have insurance on it!” (Bahrani smartly prods at these myths, cutting to conspicuous proof to the contrary with all the certitude of Ron Howard’s narrator in Arrested Development.)

But it’s those contradictions that clearly fascinate Bahrani, Davis as the ultimate avatar for a kind of tough-on-crime Reaganite conservative who came to prominence in the war on crime ’80s. His outlook and branding are Blue Lives Matter to a tee; he loves guns and cops as much as he hates “commies” and liberals, and mocks accusations of police brutality even as he puts out actual cash rewards for cops who successfully execute their assailants.

Bahrani smartly avoids talking about The Former Guy and the reactionary conservatism he shares with guys like Davis. But he offers a window into the kind of punitive, us-vs-them worldview that would make him so attractive to the wraparound sunglasses-and-goatee set. It’s odious, but impossible to look away from, and Bahrani shares a perverse affection for the man even as he patiently pries open the truth behind each of Davis’ self-made legends.

Yin and Yang: It’s that curiosity that keeps 2nd Chance from being a scathing hit piece on Davis, as clear-eyed as it is about his pathological lying and, as we’ll learn, the ignorance and malfeasance that would lead to hundreds of thousands of lives being endangered due to defective vests being knowingly produced with inadequate material.

Outside of Davis’ perspective, we hear about him from the folks who know him best: there are his two ex-wives, who patiently break down his eccentricities even as something in their voices alludes to some residual admiration.

There’s his loyal son, who’s bought into the myth of Richard Davis (perhaps due to his own culpability in some of Second Chance’s mistakes). And don’t forget Aaron Westwick, Second Chances notorious “first save,” a former cop whose vest saved his life in a shootout, thus bonding him to Davis for life. To some, he’s a villain; to others, he’s their savior.

That’s the dilemma that Bahrani and his other subjects wrestle with — particularly in a late-film reveal that pokes a massive hole in Davis’ contention that “criminals” deserve death without hesitation. It’s such a sweet, heartbreaking moment that is at once incredibly heartfelt and so out of left field that it almost belongs in a different documentary.

And yet, it’s maybe Bahrani’s most effective refutation of Davis and the shoot-first culture he helps prop up, more effective than any hushed gotcha question uttered from behind a camera.

The Verdict: It’s telling that Bahrani’s friend Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence) is an executive producer on this; like his films, 2nd Chance points the barrel of its camera lens squarely at a man allergic to accountability and tries to hit its target.

Formally, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, despite some ’70s flourishes like period-appropriate font and editor Aaron Wickenden’s elegant dance between Davis’ tossed-off stories and the facts and friends that contradict them. But this straight-shooting approach mostly works, even if it doesn’t pin Davis down as concretely as some would like. In the end, 2nd Chance is less about its subject than what he represents: the thorny question of how we measure a man by the balance of his deeds.

Sundance Review: Ramin Bahrani Tests the Conscience of the American Id in 2nd Chance
Clint Worthington

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