Los Angeles Times

Enduring spirit of Gabby Giffords

- By Robert Abele

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 recently received a Medal of Freedom. 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, Texas, Buffalo, N.Y., Highland Park, Ill., 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-astronautn­ow-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 CEO who’d switched party affiliatio­n to Democrat from Republican 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? 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 hangingon 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 lets Giffords 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, do the coaching as 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.

 ?? Briarcliff Entertainm­ent ?? GABBY GIFFORDS chats with her husband, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, in biodoc “Won’t Back Down.”
Briarcliff Entertainm­ent GABBY GIFFORDS chats with her husband, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, in biodoc “Won’t Back Down.”

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