Ramin Bahrani steers far clear of the conventional. Roger Ebert called him one of the most promising filmmakers on the scene, and indeed Bahrani dedicated “99 Homes” to the late critic. His more recent films include the HBO movie “Fahrenheit 451” and “The White Tiger,” the latter for which he was Oscar-nominated. All feature protagonists who are complicated or unusual.
Bahrani has kept up this trend with “2nd Chance,” a documentary about Richard Davis, the inventor who sought to prove the effectiveness of his bulletproof vests by shooting himself some 200 times while wearing them. Davis became a hero to law enforcement, and he reinforced the mantra to “back the blue” via his many films, which more often than not took a Dirty Harry-level approach to fighting crime. He also founded a magazine called “Sex; Violence.” But Davis flew too close to the sun: He sought to bury evidence showing that one of his newer vests was ineffective, and was ultimately betrayed by a whistleblower.
During a recent Zoom call, Bahrani told me that when he was editing “The White Tiger,” his producers approached him about directing a fictitious take on Davis’s life, but the more Bahrani learned about Davis, he felt certain this was a documentary in the making. “The archives were so shocking to look at—and also kind of funny and strange,” the director said of Davis’s movies.“Between the archives and Richard’s own filmmaking…I just wanted to use those.” Nothing was off-limits for his subject, Bahrani said. If he had a question, Davis, a true raconteur, was game to answer it. Unsurprisingly, many of his viewpoints bordered on fascistic and fetishistic when it came to his love affair with firearms and policing.
“I don’t agree with him, his philosophies I find morally repugnant, but I was drawn to him,” Bahrani said, adding that he assured Davis’s son Matt, who also features in the film, that he wasn’t out to make a hit piece about his father. “There were things that I wouldn’t even ask about that [Davis] would just start to talk about…things that I found very challenging to hear—and some of those things I ended up cutting from the film.”
Davis’s brand is macho-ness to the nth degree. Indeed, part of his own brand was claiming that he shot several bad guys who had menaced his family, but the more digging undertaken by reporters, the more Davis’s origin story unraveled.
“Richard’s story, a very heroic good-versus-bad guy origin story, became such a myth and such a legend that the History Channel recreated it—and we used that recreation in the film,” Bahrani said.
Indeed, the specific portion of “2nd Chance” deals with just this myth-making Bahrani labeled “Print the Legend,” quoting from the famous John Ford Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” “For us [‘print the legend’] was also a metaphor for the country, for its leadership: the idea of myth-making, the idea of lies, the idea of cognitive dissonance, the idea that at some point the people telling the lies seem to believe that it is true, and at some point the people hearing them believe that it’s true,” Bahrani said. It’s very hard for our illusions to die.” Indeed, one of Davis’s illusions was that, because he was so beloved by law enforcement, no consequences would visit him.
But then his greatest supporter, a former policeman named Aaron Westrick, turned on him.
Westrick himself was saved by one of Davis’s bulletproof vests and then went to work for Davis’s company in gratitude. But Westrick and other employees started having doubts about his latest product, which ultimately forced Westrick to betray Davis. One of the most haunting moments in “2nd Chance” sees Westrick, the former cop, meet face to face with Clifford Washington, the man who had shot him years earlier—and which Davis had restaged for his own movies. Indeed, it was one of Davis’s vests that had saved Westrick’s life, and that seminal moment drew him into Davis’s orbit. However, following a stint in prison for shooting Westrick, Washington turned his life around, became a pastor and a professor, and agreed to meet with Westrick at the very sight where the two had exchanged gunfire so many years earlier.
What transpires in that scene is inspiring in a way that is difficult to describe. “I found myself thinking, ‘My God, why have I not thought to reach out to the people who have shot at cops and talk to them,’” Bahrani said, adding that Washington’s arc of redemption runs completely counter to Davis’s black-and-white take on criminality. Earlier this year, the film world was shocked when, on the New Mexico set of “Rust,” Alec Baldwin accidentally fired a loaded gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who tragically lost her life that day. In “2nd Chance,”
Richard Davis is seen firing all manner of weapons, including at himself to test his vest. Thus I asked Bahrani how stringent were the safety precautions when he was making this documentary.“None of the firearms that you see Richard in the film shooting were ever done haphazardly,” he said. “So whenever there were guns that Richard was going to use, there was a break, safety conversations, [and] everyone not involved with the camera would leave. Everything was checked.“So I think we all felt very safe. We took it very seriously.”
When asked if Davis himself has seen “2nd Chance,” Bahrani says that Davis “likes the first half better than the second.” However, Davis’s son Matt told Bahrani he believed the film indeed had much to say about the complicated person that is his father. Bahrani also said he chose to focus on Davis’s ex-wives as well as a former employee of Davis’s named Brenda because their perspectives were so counter to Davis’s. “I found the female characters in the edit room really started to become central to telling the story,” Bahrani said. “They were so eloquent and poetic, and they offer such different viewpoints and philosophies to what Richard believes.”
In the post-George Floyd world, the conversation around policing and its relationship to the community—particularly communities of color—has been ongoing. Bahrani believes this is a needed change, even if there is no easy answer to the problem of gun accessibility or police brutality.
“Clearly this country has a real gun problem. And like most countries in the world, it has racial issues,” said Bahrani.
“But it definitely has a gun problem that no other country on the planet has.” Wherever you might fall on the issues of firearms in America, or the divide between law enforcement and those they police, Richard Davis might be the most intriguing film subject you meet this year.
“2nd Chance” is in select theaters as of December 21st and will be available on Amazon Prime starting December 30th.