The story of Gabby Giffords crosses party lines. After all, if you can’t feel sympathy for her situation, despite being a member of a different political party than you, you’re beyond saving. So, the new documentary Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is starting off from a solid place, to be sure. At the same time, goodwill only goes so far, so it’s essential that the doc also compels on its own merits. Luckily, Giffords as a human being is so inspiring, and her story depicted so frankly yet tenderly, that it’s easy to enjoy this film. Now, the movie isn’t inventing the non-fiction wheel, but if this sort of biographical flick is your thing, you’ll find your heart more than warmed.
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down will work best if you have some knowledge of Giffords and her story, but even if you don’t, it’s all here. That’s the charm of a doc like this. The filmmakers, who specialize in this type of thing, take a well-known individual and focus on them in a new way. The more you know about her, the more you’ll be surprised by what you end up discovering.
The documentary tells the story not just of Gabby Giffords, but of her husband Mark Kelly as well. Giffords was a successful moderate Democrat politician in Arizona, using her genuine likability and passion to eventually rise up to become a Congresswoman. Along the way, she meets and marries Kelly, an astronaut. It’s a fairytale, one that should have had her on the way to the United States Senate, as well as potentially the Presidency one day. Then, while giving a speech, a disturbed young man with a gun shot her in the head.
As Giffords fights to recover, Kelly supports her every step of the way. Eventually, she’s discharged from the hospital, after months of rehab, even returning to Washington, DC to cast an important vote. However, she’ll soon resign her seat, focusing on her health, though she remains active in the cause of sensible gun control. A few years later, with her guidance and support, Kelly runs for Senate in Arizona, fighting the fight his wife would have been engaged in, if not for a madman with a deadly weapon.
Watching Giffords and Kelly, both before and after the shooting, is always compelling. Their stories are impressive, to be sure, but watching how they navigate the tragedy is something else. There’s a sadness to seeing Gabby diminished, but also supreme pride in how far she’s come. For Mark, his stoicism mixes with tenderness to make him an ideal partner here. Their scenes together as he plans to run for Senate, a seat she once upon a time would have ran for, showcase them at their best, team-wise.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West do this sort of documentary really well. Julia, My Name is Pauli Murray, and RBG all fit in quite snugly with Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. It’s a no-frills and character based approach that allows their subjects to always feel honest, whether they’re currently alive or not. Here, Cohen and West have a true survivor and they make the most of it, to be sure.
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is the sort of low-key documentary that may cause you to shed a tear or two, but also will have you smiling by the end. We know that Giffords isn’t planning to quit fighting the good fight, and that’s downright inspiring. If Cohen and West keep this up, we’ll soon have a whole filmography filled with inspiring women, and that’s something to celebrate!