Ramin Bahrani, once again, has something to say about the state of the modern-day American Dream. That “something,” per usual for him and many filmmakers of his ilk, is re-stating the plainly obvious in all caps and with some choice underlining: capitalism is BAD (more like crapitalism, amirite?), everything nowadays about profits and percentages, and because of these two broad axioms, we’ve lost our mutual humanity as a result. But Bahrani seems to think that we as a collective audience haven’t gotten it yet, even after an onslaught of post-Big Short exercises in telling us how we’re blind idiots to corporate greed; this may also help explain why each of his recent feature-length melodramas has become more didactic in terms of spelling all of this out. The absolute nadir of this type of moral handwringing was, at first, At Any Price, a complete and utter misfire (and a Roger Ebert 4-star) about the supposed sinister world of seed patents, which was practically dead on arrival with a central topic that bland — it also happened to feature one of Dennis Quaid’s most buggin’ performances. That was, the nadir until 99 Homes came along with a cigar-twirling Michael Shannon to hammer it all home even further, ending with a literal machismo-heavy screaming match that would make the likes of Nicholas Ray blush.
Now there’s 2nd Chance, Bahrani’s first foray into documentary filmmaking after last year’s The White Tiger — which somehow secured him his first screenwriting Oscar nomination — that operates in the same blunt-force register as his narrative ones. He even went to the trouble of spelling out via voiceover narration what should be the doc’s subtext, but who needs that when you have an audience to educate? “What drew me to Richard were his contradictions,” he pensively states within the first ten minutes, worried that we might not get that some rich asshole is a walking inconsistency unless he flat-out tells us. The Richard in question — who’s the central subject of the doc as a whole — is human reptile Richard Davis, a once failed Detroit-based pizzeria owner who later invented the first bulletproof vests made of kevlar and eventually founded Second Chance, a body armor manufacturing company based out of Northern Michigan. In order to promote his new technology, Davis would travel to local police stations and “test it out” by shooting himself point-blank in the chest while wearing said vest; as Bahrani also mentions, “In 500 million years, Richard Davis is the only man to shoot himself 192 times,” a factoid that, like much of the information provided throughout, really doesn’t connect with much else going on beyond initial shock and awe.
We learn a lot more about Richard: that he directed a number of 8mm “educational” films about the many lives that his vest saved, all of which fudge key details for maximum entertainment value; that while he treated many members of his staff like family, he has no qualms about dumping people the second they become invaluable; and while he cries on camera at the thought of the untold number of lives that his vest could have saved if he had invented it sooner, he was directly involved in a massive public scandal involving Zylon-based vests that his company knew were defective, yet still mass-produced for piggies around the country. All of these brazen lies are stacked on top of one another, yet Bahrani never can quite tie it all together beyond being bewildered by the state of it all. He’s clearly amazed that a creature like Davis can/does exist and tries to nail him on his hypocrisies several times over — but he always comes up empty-handed, as men like Davis really couldn’t care less if their mistruths are exposed so long as they ultimately got away with it (the same issues plagued The Act of Killing, who’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer, is credited as a producer here). “His story is a metaphor for the country,” Bahrani also spoon-feeds audience members, and to a degree, he’s certainly right — yet, considering how obvious this all is in hindsight and how little this will change in the present, who really cares? It’s the cinematic equivalent of screaming into the wind, getting angry for anger’s sake, proving that, sometimes, the most productive thing one can say is simply saying nothing at all.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.