Ramin Bahrani’s latest is a fitfully interesting, by-the-numbers account of a curious figure on the fringes of American law enforcement.
2nd Chance, the first feature-length documentary by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, begins in jest as a middle-aged man methodically loads a Magnum pistol and shoots himself point-blank in the chest. This is Richard Davis, the disgraced, ever-bumptious inventor of the concealable, lightweight bulletproof vest and the unlikely subject of Bahrani’s latest endeavor, which traces the tawdry rise and ignominious fall of Davis’ Michigan-area company, Second Chance. Davis is, of course, clad in one of his own vests when he performs this stunt, proof of its effectiveness; by the time Bahrani’s film catches up to the present, he will have performed it a total of 192 times.
Bahrani—serving as writer, director, and narrator—employs abundant archival footage and seemingly unfettered access to Davis and those presently and formerly within his inner circle to chronicle how this glorified fear peddler went from shooting schlocky, homemade action movies for publicity to outfitting America’s police, military, and sitting presidents. Davis, garrulous and rotund in late age, prints his own legend in to-camera testimonials. He pats himself on the back for being a self-appointed, lifelong defender of his country’s boys in blue, even hiring Aaron Westrick, a former cop saved by one of his vests, to work alongside Davis’ father, son, and (first) ex-wife at Second Chance. To hear Davis tell it, he’s a flawed yet essentially altruistic pioneer who found a way to protect the protectors in an irreparably violent world.
Davis doubles-down on his nobility even as Bahrani dives into the events that led to his ruin, a melange of fiascoes which come across here as Coen brothers lite, from a sting operation with a high school vandal acting as mole to a fatal fireworks show to the potential arson of a Detroit pizzeria. The film takes a decidedly solemn turn when detailing Second Chance’s biggest and most catastrophic controversy, in which the company’s reliance on a flimsy fiber called Zylon resulted in the production and distribution of hundreds of thousands of defective vests—and numerous on-the-job deaths of police officers.
Bahrani gives respectful screen time to the widow and son of Tony Zeppetella, the California officer who was the first to die while wearing Second Chance’s faulty vest. That the product was kept on the market—even though Davis and his board had full knowledge of the material’s flaws as early as the testing stage—is a telling indicator of the depths of Davis and his cohort’s mercenary mendacity.
Sitting face-to-face with Davis, Bahrani treats him like an unpeeled onion, perhaps assuming that peeling back his layers will lead to understanding and that this understanding will uncover some larger truth, something like the dark heart of American brutality that Davis embodies yet believes he is counteracting. Editor Aaron Wickenden includes several instances of Bahrani pressing Davis for certain truths, but the filmmaker is ultimately too amused and,