If you find yourself sobbing through the first half of the new documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” no one could possibly blame you.
Maybe you’ll break at the part where you hear about Giffords’ mother moving to Texas so she could be with her in the hospital every day. Maybe video footage of her early speech-therapy sessions, where she struggles to say her own name, will get you. Perhaps her return to House of Representatives, where she was met with a standing ovation, will put you over the edge.
Whatever your undoing, it’s impossible to withstand much of this powerful film, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West (“Julia,” “My Name is Pauli Murray”), without being overwhelmed.
The documentary opens on a series of white roses in front of the National Mall, each placed to represent an American felled by gun violence. Archival footage in the opening credits then treats us to the whirlwind rise of Gabrielle Giffords, a Tucson native who went from owning her family’s tire shop to the state legislature at age 31. She quickly ascended to the state senate and then the U.S. Congress. These images of the vibrant congresswoman are then abruptly cut off by footage of her in a hospital bed in 2011, her head shaved and riddled with stitches, as she struggles to give her husband a thumbs-up.
After footage of her early recovery (captured thanks to her husband, who thought she would want to see what she went through), the film reveals more about the assassination attempt that nearly killed Giffords. A gunman targeted her “Congress on Your Corner” event at a local Safeway, killing six people and injuring 13, including Giffords.
This makes for easily the most breathtaking portion of the film, as witnesses talk about that awful day. Daniel Hernández Jr. – then a congressional intern in his first week of work, now a member of the Arizona House of Representatives – tried to stop Giffords’ bleeding with his own hands. Giffords’ husband, the astronaut Mark Kelly, was training in Texas at the time of the incident and had to learn about her status through the media. At one point, he believed she was dead due to erroneous news reports.
The film chronicles more of Giffords’ rehabilitation – including one astonishing sequence in which Kelly, then commander of the Space Shuttle “Endeavour,” links the craft to the International Space Station on the same day that Giffords has skull surgery – before jumping to 2021. Now, despite some paralysis on her left side, Giffords is relatively independent and enjoys bike rides.
The biggest loss is to her capacity for speech: Giffords suffers from aphasia due to her injury, meaning that, though her speech therapist says she is quick-witted as ever, she is incapable of expressing herself fully. She speaks in simple sentences and one-word answers. When the filmmakers ask her whether she thought Arizona should have sought the death penalty for her assailant, she shakes her head, saying, “Jail, jail, jail, jail. Mentally ill.”
That doesn’t stop this film from showcasing Giffords’ almost pathological positivity. “Won’t Back Down” is borrowed from the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down,” a feature on Giffords’ favorite 80s radio station. She is fond of the phrase “No bueno,” even when talking about incredibly bleak things (like her own incapacity for speech), and keeps part of her own skull in her freezer, next to a bag of frozen empanadas.
She brings this energy to her personal life and her continued activism, as she coaches her husband through his own nascent political career and heads up Giffords, a gun-control organization for gun owners that hopes to function as a kind of “anti-NRA.”
The film’s editor, Ilya Chaiken (“American Experience”), deftly assembles Giffords’ complex history, juggling both her and her exceptional husband with aplomb. But “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” might have benefitted from a bit more rearranging. After the gut-punch of its entire first half, less dramatic matters like Kelly’s run for senate land more softly than they otherwise might. As a result, the latter half can feel draggy. Perhaps if these two sections had been switched or otherwise shuffled, Giffords’ and Kelly’s political successes wouldn’t feel so meek in comparison to their personal triumphs.
For the most part, though, this documentary is a triumphant portrait of a remarkable woman. If it leans a bit too hard on the positivity at times, with some cheesy musical cues and little exploration of Giffords’ squashed political promise, that feels more like an homage to the protagonist than a practice in naïveté. After all, this is a woman who, to paraphrase her own words from the film, was robbed of speech but not of a voice. And talking heads like Barack Obama offer some necessary gravitas.
In the film’s final sequence, Giffords cycles around her neighborhood, singing along to oldies and even picking up litter on the way. But “Won’t Back Down” is not just a testament to Giffords’ unflagging spirit: it also captures her legacy, providing a compelling endorsement for center-left politics and bipartisanship in our increasingly stratified political climate. (Giffords herself is still a gun owner.) That the filmmakers manage to address so much of such a complicated life in just over 90 minutes speaks highly to their effectiveness, vision and economy.
“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” opens in US theaters July 15.