It was supposed to be a routine event. Gabby Giffords, a Representative from Arizona, was hosting a meet-and-greet outside a grocery store so that she could listen to the concerns of her constituents. Instead of a helpful gathering, it became a tragedy when a man opened fire, killing six and injuring 19, including Giffords, who was shot in the head. She miraculously survived but was left with aphasia, a condition marked by childlike speech and difficulty in extemporaneous speaking. Most people would have retreated from public life after that. Not her. The superb documentary Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down delves into its subject's story and the inspiring aftermath of that horrible day.
Following a detailed recap of the shooting, the film presents hospital footage of Giffords in recovery, learning how to speak again. It's a slow process, sometimes just a syllable at a time. Her frustration is obvious, especially when the brain damage renders her unable to stop spontaneously saying the word "chicken." We get to see her gradually progress, thanks to a dedicated speech therapist, a love of music and singing, and an internal determination that no bullet can quell. The healing is truly astonishing, especially given how unlikely it seemed at the beginning.
Giffords' marriage to astronaut Mark Kelly is clearly an important ingredient in her improvement. He offers support and encouragement, even when his job doesn't allow him to be beside his wife. One of the most potent sequences in the film skillfully cuts together footage of him docking at the international space station at the same time that she's having surgery to replace her skull plate. Both are incredibly precise actions. That they happened simultaneously and were successful almost feels like a miracle. Out in space, Kelly is thrilled to learn that Gabby's operation went well, and she's equally thrilled that he executed a perfect docking. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG) nicely capture the marital dynamics, which are built on mutual respect, along with a shared sense of the importance of forward momentum in life.
Later sections of the movie focus on Giffords' work with Gun Owners For Safety and similar organizations pushing for sensible gun control legislation. Even though she has to endlessly rehearse her speeches in order to make them sound natural, her passion for the cause shines through. Far from cowering in fear because of her injuries, Giffords is driven to use the situation to educate and advocate. As a victim of gun violence, she has a strong perspective on its impact. In sharing that perspective, she hopes to create better understanding of the need to take basic steps to increase safety.
What most elevates Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down beyond basic documentary is the personal angle. We get to know her as a human being, not just as a politician or a victim. The recovery footage, in particular, adds substantial depth to Gabby's journey. Getting to see the aftereffects draws a line under two basic truths: 1.) that people around the victims are impacted by gun violence too; and 2.) that if you're lucky enough to survive being shot, the ordeal is far from over. That, more than anything, may be what she strives to convey. Shootings take a toll way beyond what one might initially imagine.
Giffords still has speech limitations, yet she comes across as a woman with plenty left to say. With her unfailingly supportive husband by her side, she's out there fighting for common sense legislation that will prevent others from going through what she – and the innocent individuals who lost their lives that day – went through. Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down celebrates her activism, as well as her compassionate personality. The movie inspires and motivates. It's a testament to the power of the human spirit.
out of four
Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving gun violence and some disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.