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Ramin Bahrani on his new documentary about the creator of the modern bulletproof vest

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

First responders, law enforcement, soldiers and even journalists use bulletproof vests, but very few people probably know how some of these lightweight pieces of armor came to be. In a new documentary, we get a shocking look at the now-defunct bulletproof vest manufacturer, Second Chance, that modernized the vests and the larger-than-life personality behind the company. Ramin Bahrani is the director of the documentary, also named "2nd Chance," and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RAMIN BAHRANI: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

RASCOE: So the person who is really, I guess, the star of the documentary, if you want to call it the star, is Richard Davis, who founded the company Second Chance, which made bulletproof vests for the police, the military. Even former President George W. Bush wore one of his vests. What made you interested in Davis' story?

BARANHI: There were a lot of themes that resonated with me - the rags-to-riches story. He was a salesman, which I'm very attracted to the American salesman character, and the moral crisis that came to be at the center of the story. I was quite drawn to those things. I typically make fiction films. This is my first documentary, and a lot of my fiction films deal with those themes. So they seem to be presenting themselves here in a character, as you said, that is larger than life. So the myth of Richard Davis was also quite appealing to me.

RASCOE: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing about it. And I have to say, this is a man who shot himself in the torso almost 200 times to prove that his product worked. That's on camera. Did you get a sense of, like, why he did that?

BARANHI: We could say it's crazy or foolish or we could say it's brave, and his bravery created a device that saved thousands of people. And I like to think of it that way. It did because that bravery he demonstrated and his ingenuity - again, that rags-to-riches - that is something very positive. But next to it, there's a lot of wild things that become unearthed in the telling of this film that aren't so good. There are quite disturbing things he did. But again, to the myth-making - he made movies about all this, too. He made eight hours of film - marketing, propaganda. Some of them were quite brutal and fascistic, and some of them are hilarious and bizarre and camp and funny. It was kind of like, how could I not make the film about this guy?

RASCOE: It seemed to also be - not only was he focused on being a hero, being courageous. It seemed like part of why Richard Davis might have been searching for that is because of his relationship with his father, who was in, you know, Iwo Jima and, you know, was fighting in World War II and all of these things. But that relationship between Richard Davis and his father and then between Richard Davis and his own son is very interesting that you dive into in this documentary.

BARANHI: Yeah. I think the best way to sum it up is by painting the images from the film, which is in one moment we see Richard and his father on a boat...

RASCOE: Yes.

BARANHI: ...And Richard is wearing body armor that he invented, and his father has, I believe, like, an AK-47. Then his father begins to, you know, shoot at him with this kind of a rifle over and over and over again, including, at some point, shooting at his own son's groin.

RASCOE: And he can't stop because he was, like, back in Iwo Jima, like - and this is on tape.

BARANHI: Yeah, it's disturbing in many ways because of the impact of war. I mean, World War II was - and Iwo Jima was obviously a brutal battle and a very important one, because even as Richard correctly says in the movie, maybe it was one of the last wars that was - we could more clearly understand good and bad, right? And after that, it became harder to grasp what was good and what was bad.

RASCOE: When you were dealing with or talking to Richard, like, did you get a sense of remorse from him? Did you ever get a sense of regret?

BARANHI: A little bit. It was very difficult. I went there thinking that I was going to encounter a man who had been a charming, brash, over-the-top salesman who had done something good, in a way, had invented this vest, had risked his life to do it - it is courageous - and had made all these mistakes and was going to tell me about his regrets and how - he had a very hard time with that. I don't think he was quite capable of it, which I think you see in the film. He's not able to do that. There was, in a way, a wall of cognitive dissonance with Richard, where you would talk about facts from the past and he would deny that they had even happened or they had happened in that way.

In his stories, he was typically the victim or the hero, but never anything else. I think for me, then, the only way to really get to the other sides of the story were by talking to the other characters, like his second ex-wife. You know, even Tim - there was a man who was a teenager Richard had tormented and threatened to kill. He was one of two people who wore a wire against Richard. I mean, it's kind of - I mean, it's so crazy to say all these things, but it's kind of a wild story.

RASCOE: Why do you think America in general is very captivated by the larger-than-life salesman?

BARANHI: Because in a way, it is the American dream, because in most countries you cannot really ascend from rags to riches. You know, it is not so easy in many cultures and countries, right? I mean, it is still a rigged system in America. It's a pretty rigged system for the rich. You see it even in the movie, the people in Richard's company - you know, a cop died. Hundreds of thousands of people's lives were risked because they didn't want to recall a vest that wasn't working. People got golden parachutes, right? These kind of themes, again, are in the film, and they're very American.

RASCOE: I mean, when you look at your film coming out now at a point in American history where there are more guns in circulation than ever, you have a lot of mass shootings, like, did you have any thought about, like, making this film that obviously has a lot of guns, a lot of destruction, right now?

BARANHI: Yeah, I think it's relevant for the moment, for all the reasons you said and for the other themes in the film, as we discussed, like a character who's unable to discern, even for himself, what's true and what's a lie, and how the people that are surrounding him, even ones who have been harmed by him, seem to want to believe in the illusions and the myth rather than the truth. And all these things we're talking about, including gun violence, America's obsession with guns and what we perceive to be something heroic, these things are there in the film but we never really talk about them. There's no lesson like that in the movie. It's there for you to take away what you want from it. And that was also something we tried to do, as the filmmaker, was just to let the story tell itself, you know, and let audiences take what they want from it.

RASCOE: Ramin Bahrani's new documentary, "2nd Chance," is out now. Thank you so much for joining us.

BARANHI: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRIEL SONG, "IN YOUR ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.