Review: ‘Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,’ starring Gabby Giffords

September 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Gabby Giffords in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Culture Representation: Taking place in Arizona, and in Washington, D.C., the documentary film “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans), representing the middle-class and wealthy, who discuss the life of former U.S. House of Representatives member Gabby Giffords, who survived a gun-shooting assassination attempt her home state of Arizona in 2011.

Culture Clash: After recovering from a coma, amnesia, a brain injury, and adjusting to life with reduced physical abilities, Giffords became an outspoken activist to pass stricter gun laws but has gotten resistance from people who think she wants to take away Second Amendment rights.

Culture Audience: “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching true stories about inspirational survival and resilience and documentaries about people working to reduce gun violence.

Gabby Giffords in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (Photo by Dyanna Taylor/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Moving and inspirational, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” should be required viewing for anyone facing seemingly impossible challenges. This documentary has some politics, but it’s more of a story about courage and becoming stronger after major setbacks. Regardless of how people feel about gun laws in the United States, people who watch “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” will find something to relate to in this movie about how the human spirit, rather than physical capabilities, defines real character. “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is one of several documentaries this filmmaking duo has made about unique and remarkable people who experienced prejudices, overcame obstacles, and surpassed people’s expectations, usually in male-dominated fields. Cohen and West also directed the Oscar-nominated 2018 film “RBG,” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice; 2021’s “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” about the gender non-conforming civil rights activist Pauli Mauray; and 2021’s “Julia,” about famed chef/author Julia Child.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” has the most tearjerking moments of any Cohen/West documentary so far. However, viewers probably won’t shed tears of pity but tears of admiration and joy at how far Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords has come since her life was nearly taken away on January 8, 2011, when she was shot in the head outside a Safeway grocery store in Casas Adobes, Arizona, during a public speaking appearance. The lone shooter (who was 22 years old at the time and whose name won’t be mentioned here) killed six people and wounded 19 people during this rampage. He eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to life plus 140 years in federal prison.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” shows that although Giffords’ life was permanently changed because of the killing spree and attempted murders that happene that day, she has not let this tragedy define her entire life. It’s given her a new purpose in life where she aims to make changes for the better. At the time of the shooting, Giffords (who was born on June 8, 1970) has been serving since 2006 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district. Giffords started out as a Republican early in her political career, but she’s been a moderate Democrat since 2000.

The documentary doesn’t take a chronological approach to telling her life story. Instead, it begins with striking footage of Giffords visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where her Giffords non-profit group arranged for an installation where abut 40,000 white roses were displayed on the lawn. The roses represented the approximate number of people per year who are killed by gun violence in the United States.

Giffords says with sadness in her voice: “So many people hurt. A lot of people died. Always connected to them. Grateful to survive. I’m alive.” The movie then shows a quick montage of her life, leading up to what is in first third of the documentary: a chronicle of Giffords’ arduous and intense recovery from the gun injuries. First, she was in a coma. When she got out of the coma, she found out that she had partial paralysis in her legs and her arms. Her eyes also lost a lot of vision capabilities.

Giffords also had severe amnesia from her brain injury, and she had to learn to do basic things all over again, such as talk and eat. It’s a gut-wrenching, painful and difficult process that’s shown in the movie, but Giffords has a sense of humor that did not disappear after she experienced this tragic shooting. It’s mentioned several times that Giffords’ recovery process was helped with support from loved ones, excellent medical care, and because Giffords (who loves music and who was a skilled French horn player) used music as a therapy tool.

One of the hardest things that Giffords had to deal with in her recovery was knowing what she wanted to say but not having the motor skills to communicate what was in her head. She has aphasia, which is a language impairment that makes it difficult for someone to comprehend and express language. People with aphasia often fixate on a certain word that they say often when they can’t say another word. Early in her recovery, the word “chicken” was something that Giffords often repeated. Speech pathologist Angie Glynn is shown in the documentary as a crucial person to help Giffords in the recovery process.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is true example of a loving and supportive partner in good times and bad. The documentary shows how he was by Giffords’ side during her most difficult challenges. He says about his decision to videorecord Giffords’ hospital recovery and many of her therapy sessions: “I thought at some point—maybe it was a year or 10 years later—Gabby was going to want to see what she went through. So, I got a friend of mine pck up a camera and a tripod, and he just started filming.”

The documentary chronicles how Kelly went through his own adjustments, as someone with a spouse recovering from this tragedy. He also vividly describe his feelings in the minutes and hours after the shooting, including the trauma of hearing incorrect news reports that Giffords had died. Kelly eventually retired from his job as a NASA astronaut to help take care of his wife.

Later, when Giffords had to step down from the U.S. House of Representatives and became a full-time activist, Kelly had a successful campaign to be elected as the replacement for Giffords in the U.S. House of Representatives. Kelly (who’s somewhat of an introvert) admits that becoming a politician was outside of his comfort zone, but he and many other people (including Giffords) felt strongly that he was the next best person to carry on the legacy that she started when she was a member of the U.S. Congress.

People interviewed in the documentary predictably have high praise for Giffords. They include congressional staffer Ron Barber, who has this to say about Giffords’ charisma: “I’ve seen many people run for office, locally and nationally. I’ve never seen anyone like her. Our office manager came up with came up with the best description. She said, ‘When you meet her, you get Gabby-fied.”

Several other Democrats also weigh in with their opinions. South Carolina congressperson James F. Clyburn spent time campaigning with Giffords. Clyburn says, “She was someone with whom I felt an immediate kindred spirit. She had a way of putting everyone at ease.”

Former U.S. president Barack Obama adds, “Whenever you saw someone who could bridge the partisan gap and speak to people in a way that felt authentic, that was something that was really prized. She had the energy and the ambition to have gone really far in politics.”

One of the misconceptions about Giffords that the documentary puts an emphasis on is that Giffords is not about taking away people’s guns, because she’s a gun owner herself. She says of her Arizona roots and her beliefs about gun ownership: “I’m from the Wild, Wild West. I’m not against guns. I own guns. I’m against gun violence.”

Giffords believes in stricter background checks to ensure that people who are mentally unfit and people with certain violent felonies should not be getting new guns. Giffords also doesn’t believe that private citizens need to have shooting machines that are meant for war and mass destruction. Giffords Gun Safety Organization executive director Peter Ambler explains: “Gabby has a strategy to reach out to folks who weren’t part of the previous gun violence prevention movement, who may be gun owners themselves, but are committed to stop gun violence in this country.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” interviews some of the other survivors of the mass shooting that almost killed Giffords. These survivors include Daniel Hernandez (who was Giffords’ congressional intern at the time) and constituent Suzi Hileman, who witnessed 9-year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green die in front of her. Green was a neighbor of Hileman, who had brought Green to the speaking appearance. Another shooting victim who did not survive was 30-year-old Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, who was a community outreach director for Giffords at the time.

The middle of the documentary delves into Giffords’ life before the day of the fateful shooting. Giffords is described as an ideal daughter who did the types of things that would make any parent proud. She was a Girl Scout. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology and Latin American History from Scripps College in California in 1993. Then, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico. She got a master’s degree in Regional Planning from Cornell University in 1996.

The documentary shows that she has a pattern of turning failures into successes, such as when she took over her faltering family business, El Campo Tire Warehouses (founded by her grandfather), and turned it into a very profitable company. After the company was sold to Goodyear Tires in 2000, Giffords then segued into politics by winning her first election (to the Arizone State House of Representatives) in 2001.

If all of that sounds like someone who has a “too good to be true” perfect and accomplished life, Giffords says it wasn’t. In the documentary, Giffords says that she was unlucky in love for many years. It wasn’t until she was in her late 30s that she found the love of her life (Kelly), whom she married in 2007.

And becoming a stepmother to Kelly’s two daughters (Claudia and Claire) from his previous marriage didn’t go very smoothly at all. Claudia Kelly says in the documentary that she resented having Gabby as a stepmother for years. After the shooting, Claudia says she felt guilty about the fractured relationship she had with Giffords, and they both made amends for past hurts. Claudia comments, “Claire and I have a much different relationship with Gabby now. It’s definitely a much warmer and special relationship than before.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are Sgt. Charles Garcia of Pima County Sheriff’s Department, who was involved in the investigation of the mass shooting; neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim; Capitol Media Services reporter Howard Fischer; The Arizona Republic reporter Stephanie Innes; speech pathologist Fabi Hirsch; and Giffords’ mother, Gloria. (Gloria’s husband/Gabby’ father, Spencer Giffords, died in 2013, but he is seen in some of the footage during Gabby’s hospitalization.)

The documentary shows Gabby in various settings: in the hospital, at home, and out in public doing various things for the causes that mean the most to her. Not surprisingly, she is at her most vulnerable in the hospital, at her most relaxed at home, at her most confident in public. At the National Mall, she meets up with fellow Democratic politicians Clyburn, Chris Murphy and Val Demings, as they respectfully pay tribute to the lives lost to gun violence.

The song choices in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” are expertly and almost predictably paired with certain scenes, and they sound like the life soundtrack of a Generation Xer’s youth, with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. It should come as no surprise that a movie with this title uses Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” for an emotion-stirring scene. Another prominently featured song is U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” might not change people’s minds about gun laws in the United States. However, the movie greatly succeeds in showing a powerful human story of someone whose life was forever changed by gun violence and how she didn’t let a tragedy defeat her. It’s a heartwarming reminder that good things can sometimes come from horrible and senseless actions that were meant to harm others.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” in select U.S. cinemas on July 13, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 5, 2022. CNN will premiere “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” on November 20, 2022.

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