Richard Davis was a bankrupt pizzeria owner when he came up with the idea for a bulletproof vest in 1969 in Michigan.
Body armor was nothing new, of course, but Davis felt like he could make something lighter that could be worn, undetected, under clothing. Kevlar, he would discover, was the answer. And to prove that his invention actually worked, Davis, a former Marine and born showman, went to extraordinary lengths: He committed suicide more than 190 times.
Somehow, that’s not even the craziest part of her story, which is chronicled in the animated documentary “2nd Chance,” which premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.
Using new interviews with Davis, friends, foes and ex-wives, the film traces the formation of his Second Chance society, its triumphs (saving hundreds of lives) and its tragedies, including the death of a police officer after the company started using Zylon in their vest.
“2nd Chance” is the feature-length documentary debut of Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian-American filmmaker whose films often explore and dismantle notions of the American Dream, including “Chop Shop and “99 Homes.”
He was in the process of editing his latest feature film, ” The White Tiger, when several producers approached him about doing a Davis narrative. But Bahrani surprised them when he said he’d rather do a doc.
“I tried to go there unknowingly and without a set plan and waiting for people to tell me things,” Bahrani said. “With the short docs I had done, I remember calling Werner Herzog and asking him what the approach was? His advice was not to pre-interview people on the phone, not to talk to them before Just start rolling the camera and get those immediate interactions.
Davis is an eccentric character who is at times shockingly candid and at other times a thoroughly unreliable narrator, whom Bahrani explores with lucid empathy.
“Some of what he says may be uncomfortable to hear and I disagree with his positions. But at the same time, he was charming, he was likeable. When we showed up every day and showed up to meet him, he cooked mac and cheese for the crew and gave us cookies,” Bahrani said.
“What was interesting to me about Richard was that you couldn’t force him to just want to make a lot of money. I kind of agree with his second wife that he doesn’t wasn’t necessarily motivated by money. But I think he enjoyed being the star. There’s a narcissism about him. There’s an ability to believe in his own deceptions that reminded me of a lot of people in power, even in this country,” Bahrani continued.
“It reminds me of a modern or harsh version of Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’, where the father has a thriving factory making warplanes and the son comes to realize that some of those planes are faulty and led to the death of pilots. The father ends up really knocking a moral force from the son and it ends in suicide. There is a moral center in the room. Here, somehow, this center Morale in Richard’s own world seemed absent. He started another venture that was even more successful, or just as successful. There’s something troubling about that.
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