For those of us living in Arizona, Gabby Giffords' story is a familiar one. The Arizona Representative was shot in the head at an event in Tucson outside of a grocery store on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people died that day including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. I wondered going into directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West's Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down what the angle would be here. The answer is a moving portrait of love and perseverance, the same energy they brought to RGB.
Giffords survived the shooting against tremendous odds. Her husband Sen. Mark Kelly, was there for the entire thing. While it is clear the directors want to focus on Giffords and her remarkable strength, Kelly ends up being a huge part of the story. It is their love, through all of this struggle and pain that moved me the most. Giffords now suffers from aphasia, an illness that affects one's ability to transform thoughts into words. Cohen and West do a great job of illustrating the frustration of this impairment. Giffords was a talkative, opinionated woman before the shooting and now has to struggle to get those thoughts out.
Using footage that Kelley shot of her recovery, the film is an intimate portrait of her therapy. In a touching moment, she struggles to learn to sing Happy Birthday for her husband. In fact, music therapy ends up being a key factor in her success. Many aphasia patients are able to sing better than they can express internal thoughts. Through all of this, Giffords charisma shines.
While the touching elements of this story would be enough to move audiences, the real power of Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down is what she does post-recovery. Giffords is using her experience to influence the political conversation on heightened background checks for gun purchasers. She is clear about being a gun owner but thinks it is far too easy for a young person with potential mental health issues to get a gun in this country. The film weaves in the mass shootings that occur frequently in America to show how serious a topic this is. Former President Barack Obama gives a moving account of the devastation.
Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down is about heart and grit merging together to impact societal change. It paints a powerful portrait of a woman who keeps her dignity in the face of a debilitating event that spurs a movement for better gun control. Even knowing Giffords story going into the film, I felt I learned a lot about her.