(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Ramin Bahrani
Programme: Premiere (World Premiere)
Ramin Bahrani, the Oscar-nominated Iranian-American filmmaker behind such indie hits as Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, 99 Homes, and The White Tiger, makes his documentary debut with 2nd Chance. It’s a story that feels even stranger than fiction.
With echoes of Errol Morris’ Mr. Death, 2nd Chance focusses on another unique character with an interest in contributing to the American system of policing and justice. Richard Davis’ mythologized origin story is that of a former marine who became a Pizzeria owner and is said to have shot three armed robbers while being shot in the process. He took that incident to help develop the first modern bulletproof vest, disposing with bulky metallic flak jacket plates in favour of many layers of flexible, lightweight modern materials like Kevlar.
In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of his invention – manufactured by his company named “Second Chance” speaking to its desire to save those in the line of fire – Davis shot himself in the chest hundreds of times both in person and while being filmed. The stunt worked tremendously, and along with a series of promotional films that played like cop dramas, along with a newsletter highlighting the stories of those officers whose lives were saved, the modern vest soon became a staple for both officers and soldiers throughout the country.
One of those saved officers, Aaron Westrick, becomes the right-hand man to Davis, helping evangelize the company’s product using his own experience as its most salient selling point. Over time, the company would grow, dominating the small town where manufacturing took place, and riding the rise of a more militarized police force as the decades wore on.
When one of the company’s products was found to have a fundamental flaw, things began to collapse. Westrick and Davis became pitted against one another by a legal system looking for scapegoats. What’s remarkable about the story (and, in turn, Bahrani’s deft handling of the complex narrative) is how simple dichotomies are consistently abandoned in favour of presenting a detailed, nuanced portrait of the circumstances. Thanks to close participation of the main protagonists, the film manages to provide a beautifully drawn portrait of the circumstances without ever feeling like it’s sketched in a simplistic black-and-white palate.
Instead, Bahrani through documentary finds an extension of the same themes of flawed American exceptionalism that have shaded in his feature works. The result in a film that may disappoint those wishing for a more rage-filled or vindictive take down of some apparently greed-filled capitalists looking to make a buck at the expense of other lives. Without ever sugar-coating the situation, Bahrani illustrates the motivations and limitations of the main participants, showcasing in the end the very human stories behind the headlines.
The result is a film that lacks all the expected fireworks for a story about a man constantly shooting himself in the chest to make a point. 2nd Chance instead settles into a fascinating and sophisticated tale of the limitations of control, the vagaries of deceit and betrayal, and the almost unfathomable capacity to forgive even for the most heinous of actions. In the end, these are a set of stories and circumstances shared by a link of individuals, from cops to criminals, soldiers to salesmen, all in their way thinking the best of one another yet suffering from the myriad of flaws that each person and each ecosystem they represent engenders.
In many ways, this is a quiet film, unlikely to generate the kind of buzz that other, more overt narratives may present especially within a festival contest. But don’t be fooled by its placid nature. Throughout the film, one a master filmmaker developing deep storylines and even deeper analyses of human nature, as rich as any drama or documentary to play Sundance this year. Bahrani’s ability to elicit deep truths from his interviewees is laudable, but even more than that is the precise and remarkably attuned way of assembling the story to tell something difficult in a way that, for those open to experience it, something truly moving and remarkable.
Bahrani, along with collaborators such as the beloved Joshua Oppenheimer, have made a difficult documentary shine without ever coming across as maudlin or trite. It’s a delicate balancing act throughout. While no simple answers are given, there’s a sense in the end that while we may not know all the facts, we know a bit more about the human condition. Not bad for a first run at non-fiction for a man whose latest fiction work Fahrenheit 451 was an absolute atrocity. Through this new focus, we see more than a bit of the genius that drew the likes of Ebert to be so effusive about this remarkable talent.
2nd Chance premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.