Review: In 'Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down,' the former congresswoman stands her ground

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It’s as easy to admire who Gabby Giffords has shown herself to be as it is impossible not to wonder what might have been had gun violence not transformed the former Arizona congresswoman’s life. A rising political star nearly assassinated 11 years ago outside a Tucson supermarket and now committed to gun reform, Giffords rightly received a Presidential Medal of Freedom last week. It’s a sign of how continuously inspiring she is handling considerable obstacles — the language disorder aphasia, right-side paralysis — that the White House recognition is too current to make it into a new, heart-tugging documentary about her, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.”

This year’s welcome bipartisan gun law also happened too late to make it into filmmakers Betsy West’s and Julie Cohen’s latest portrait of a crusading feminist hero (following “Julia” and “My Name is Pauli Murray”). But the grimmer, more predictable flip side of what couldn’t be included is that shootings have, of course, persisted alongside Giffords’ efforts to provoke legislative change to reduce them. When the inevitable montage of American massacres in the years since Tucson appears in the film, your headline-weary consciousness will mentally add Uvalde, Buffalo, Highland Park and others.

A strange pitfall for any well-intentioned documentary with a gun control message is that to necessarily list the country’s wounds is to also reduce so much tragedy to a clip reel — city names now synecdoches for countless dead souls, snippets of news footage ill-equipped to do justice to the horror. But because it’s a problem facing anybody covering this crisis, it’s best to consider a reliably stirring advocacy biodoc like this in how it handles its warm, funny, stalwart subject. In that respect, it’s a worthy balancing act of the terrible sadness of one soberly recounted day (18 shot, six killed), the enduring spirit Giffords is and the healing power of her rock-steady marriage to ex-astronaut/now-Sen. Mark Kelly.

The film energetically reminds us that up until the events of Jan. 8, 2011, the personable, hardworking Giffords — a former tire company chief executive who’d switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat before beginning her political career — was somebody to watch in Congress as an electable, reach-across-the-aisle legislator. (Small businesswoman? Astronaut husband? Gun owner? I mean, come on.)

Her beaming do-gooder energy in that archival footage stands in stark contrast, however, to the compellingly intimate video provided to the filmmakers of those earliest rehab days after being shot in the head: shorn, sutured, staring, barely able to talk, a hanging-on smile searching for that reason to keep it. The road back elements are moving, with the footage of her therapy all kinds of emotional, including funny — a rewired brain can make any speech-dependent interaction into an unintended comedy routine when it’s not frustrating a dedicated patient to no end. Or, when it comes to her beloved ‘80s pop songs, what allows Giffords to sing her way to a happier place.

But it’s also clear from the filmmakers’ access to her life how much fixing the country defines her progress too. Watching Giffords struggle with communicating when all the words are inside her, it’s hard not to think of bullet-scarred America as suffering from a form of aphasia, too — knowing what it needs to do about guns, but thwarted repeatedly at following through. (Interviewee Barack Obama, especially, speaks to this exasperation.)

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” never fully escapes its branded-content vibes, but as a parallel love story and back-to-battle story, it succeeds, with Kelly’s triumphant 2020 run for Senate — where his wife’s ambitions once rested — presented as a stirring, if poignant, mission hand-off. And when we see Giffords, after all she’s been through, finally do the coaching when her husband prepares his first speech in front of Congress, it’s as touching a reminder as you can get that recovery is never only one-way, communication is always teachable and activism should be contagious.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.