The opening shot of Ramin Bahrani’s must-see documentary “2nd Chance” involves the inventor of the bulletproof vest, Richard Davis, shooting himself in the chest. This becomes a motif throughout the film, in which it's Richard honoring his own “tradition” that affects many lives. In one scene, it’s his father, a traumatized WWII vet, who is pointing a machine gun at his son, unable to stop firing. Later on, it’s Richard’s own son, Matt, who is the target. We learn that Richard has shot himself 192 times.
As it tells an incredibly bizarre but always affecting story, “2nd Chance” reckons with what would compel a man to do such a thing. For one, it was because he was a showy American businessman—Richard figured that to prove his product worked, he’d put his life on the line every time and film it. But in a larger sense, it’s about the gun—to defeat one of the most destructive inventions in the history of the world, and for Richard to get his own share of its mythological power. Richard's Michigan-based company, Second Chance, helped him become incredibly wealthy while saving police lives, and it gave him a great deal of attention as it comforted his hubris. Shooting himself made him powerful. But as his fantastical sense of authority started to deteriorate, it nearly destroyed everything that was real around him.
The truth within “2nd Chance” is much stranger than fiction, and it is exhilarating to see such a sensitive filmmaker handle this treasure trove of footage. Among the many strange elements are the films that Richard made to promote his product, revelations of his fantasies, and his galactic distance from the experience of real violence. In this footage, cops reenact the stories of how they were “saved” by a Second Chance bulletproof vest, with dramatic liberties taken openly (as with a script about murderous hippies who hunt cops). The movies are kooky, grotesque, and all-American, just like the mastermind behind them, and they are unrelenting in how they champion gun-toting, desperately macho nonsense, like Buffalo Bill helping create the lie of the cowboy in the late 1800s.
There are so many incredibly entertaining pieces to Richard's saga, allocated into potent chapters, and Bahrani is in masterful control of their larger meaning. His eye is always on the most influential relationships, like the connection that Richard had with his WWII veteran father, drawing a tender direct line between the father’s trauma and the son’s need to be a god of war. Later there are conspiracies and cover-ups at Second Chance, which endanger the lives of many, but also threatens the deep allegiance he has from a friend and business associate named Aaron, who was once a police officer saved by Richard’s vests. Throughout, the documentary honors what is absurd in this epic real-life drama about a narcissist entertainer who loves to blow shit up in one way or another, and what is tragic. There are no easy targets here.
Making his debut as a feature documentary filmmaker, writer/director/narrator Bahrani asks off-camera questions that could only come from being so in tune with people while always being curious about them. It’s about the moments when you catch someone off guard, in their element. For example: when he asks Richard “What do you fear the most in life?” causing the man to stop shooting a massive rifle on his isolated range. Bahrani’s presence as a documentarian is truly like one of his mentors, Werner Herzog, and this film wowed me like the best of Herzog's documentaries.
"2nd Chance" naturally hits numerous “holy shit” reveals in its expertly paced narrative. But no moment is more staggering than in the third act when Bahrani shines a brighter light on a story on the margins of Richard's warped universe, and therefore concerns an everlasting human truth about the act of pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. I would not dare spoil what exactly happens—in part to honor the intensely emotional experience I had watching it—but when this moment of empathy and reconciliation gently arrives it becomes even more clear how we continue to benefit from Bahrani's sensibilities and emotional clarity as a filmmaker.
Bahrani also has that empathy for Davis. As the bulletproof king sits on his leather couch and tries to joke his way through interviews, Bahrani challenges him about probably untrue heroic stories or very real illegal acts that were swept under the rug. But Bahrani does not try to sway Richard’s mind, or yours. “2nd Chance” reckons with the feeling of force and control that comes from the gun, but that—as stated by Richard’s son Matt in a brief passage—the greatest element we are given as human beings is free will. What we choose to do with that power is in our own hands, including pointing it at ourselves and pulling the trigger.