By Josh Reilly B. and George Bate
The United States of America is increasingly failing to live up to its name. The fifty states that make up the union are divided, as is the broader population. In a hyper-polarized nation, there are a seemingly endless number of issues that the public can’t seem to agree on. In some cases, even if there appears to be a general consensus, it doesn’t guarantee that there will be any sort of concrete action taken from those in power in Washington D.C.
This is the state of the modern world and, more specifically, the U.S. As has always been the case, the arts can serve as a unique commentary on the real world, and this is especially true now. Films like Jojo Rabbit exist not only as a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust but a warning to a world where Nazi ideas have become more prevalent once again. Even satirical superheroes shows like The Boys serve up their share of commentary on the world, from the race war mentioned in season two, the capitalist obsession with people in capes with powers, and, perhaps most relevant given recent political developments, abortion rights. The villain, Homelander, commits a terrible act of sexual assault on a woman who is then forced to not only give birth to that child but is then put in the position of needing to co-parent her son with the man who raped her.
There is a more recent, direct example of art and the way in which it can not only provide commentary, but be deeply informative as well. The documentary Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, which covers the remarkable true story of the former congresswoman from Arizona that was a victim in a mass shooting that killed six people. Giffords survived, but barely; her recovery continues to this day as the gunshot wound to her head caused immense damage. For Americans, an event such as this has sadly become part of daily life as gun violence continues to wreak havoc on communities all around the country, proving to be an epidemic in every sense of the word. The direct, real world nature of this documentary makes Won’t Back Down a difficult watch, but one that is absolutely necessary viewing.
After a fairly predictable beginning, which highlights Giffords rise to stardom as a politician, the title takes a rapid turn. Gifford’s husband, Mark Kelly, who is now a senator in Arizona, filmed her from the very beginning of her recovery journey. It’s a harrowing look at the effects of gun violence on a human being, something that is often lost on the conservative side of the weapons argument. What becomes even clearer as the documentary goes on is that, as hard as it may be to see and watch, and as difficult as it would be for Giffords herself to release that footage, there is a purpose behind it all. Raising awareness in the hopes that it brings action is the primary goal here, and the filmmakers absolutely succeed in this regard.
The team behind the documentary RBG, about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, return to the world of politics here with Giffords’ story. It is a harrowing reminder of the effect of gun violence on the American public, and perhaps more specifically a reminder of the trauma it leaves behind. The lives lost are explored here in this film, such as the tragedy of a young female victim who had her whole life ahead of her, as well as the important note that those that were there but survived, or injured themselves, never truly recover. The trauma remains and their lives will never truly be the same, which is not only an intentionally frightening thought placed into the minds of viewers but also used as rightful praise for Giffords and the way in which she persevered through this hardship.
The filmmakers cleverly move back and forth from the present day to the past, which not only gives the audience a feeling of hope that there are people in this country as strong, brave, and determined as Giffords but also, again, always looping back to the gun violence issue. The interesting what if question is explored here, again a tool used to dig into the trauma that these weapons bring to people. Hearing the plans that Giffords and her husband had to start a family is tragic, as is her political career path that was upended.
All of this leads to a feeling that, in watching her story, the viewer has actually gotten to know Giffords. She is so honest and open, as is this whole documentary, that there’s a closeness and a relationship that develops between the audience and Giffords, along with her husband Mark. This is the highest praise for a title such as this, as is the fact that it seems almost impossible to watch this film and not feel called to action to help end gun violence for good. Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is truly a must watch.