‘Gabby Giffords won’t back down’ is a profile of courage and perseverance

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(3 stars)

On the heels of their documentary portraits of activism with a human face, “RBG” and “My Name Is Pauli Murray”, filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West have turned their cameras on another remarkable subject: Gabrielle Giffords, the former MP from Arizona who, after being injured in a 2011 assassination attempt at a public event in her home neighborhood, recovered from being shot in the head at close range to become a strong advocate for gun control. It’s the elevator pitch for “Gabby Giffords won’t back down,” but it doesn’t quite convey the stirring arc of courage and perseverance featured in the film, which opens with amateur video footage of his subject, sitting in a hospital bed shortly after the shooting, as she begins the long road to recovery.

Giffords’ head is shaved, with sutures still visible from a large, ugly incision. She smiles but cannot speak. The movie and the ensuing ticking of recovery are sometimes difficult to watch. At the same time, watching seems almost necessary in a time when mass shootings seem to have become all too common.

“Won’t Back Down” contains a bit about the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, and the day of the shooting and its aftermath, which left several people dead. But he doesn’t dwell too long on Loughner’s disturbed mental state or inconsistent motive, his subsequent trial and conviction, or his access to firearms — although all of those things are touched upon. Instead, Cohen and West wisely focus primarily on Giffords herself and her laborious rehabilitation. (Today she suffers from aphasia, speaks passionately but hesitantly, as well as loss of vision. She walks with a limp – all from the bullet that tore her brain out.)

But the bright light of his personality did not fade. This is evidenced in interviews with talking heads such as former President Barack Obama, who calls Giffords a “star” – someone who seemed poised to rise as high as he wanted in politics, at least. before the shooting. That bright light is also evident in recent Giffords interviews, many of which take place alongside her husband, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and now Arizona senator who has, in some ways, taken up the mantle that his wife put aside. Giffords is now the public face of Giffords, a gun control advocacy organization that works to elect politicians who will fight for common sense gun laws. In a clip of Kelly from a campaign debate with his Republican opponent, Martha McSally, McSally calls the group a “radical political organization.”

But the person who speaks most powerfully in “Won’t Back Down” — named after rocker Tom Petty’s 1989 anthem, playing in the background of a stage — is Giffords herself. Near the film’s inspiring conclusion, we hear Giffords say, with great courage and only after hard practice: “Words once came easily. Now I have trouble speaking, but I haven’t lost my voice.

PG-13. In neighborhood theatres. Contains mature thematic material involving gun violence and disturbing imagery. 95 minutes.

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