Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down
2022, PG-13, 95 min. Directed by Julie Cohen, Betsy West.
REVIEWED By Dina Barrish, Fri., July 15, 2022
Gabby Giffords was talkative, articulate, and naturally persuasive, until she wasn’t.
The U.S. representative from Arizona was shot in the brain at a “Congress on Your Corner” event she was holding at a Tucson-area grocery store on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people died in the incident, including federal Judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. That’s where directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (experts in era-defining women, having Julia Child in Julia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG) pick up the story.
Hours after the tragedy, NPR had confirmed Giffords’ death, and the nation, along with her husband, retired astronaut Sen. Mark Kelly, had begun the mourning process. But against tremendous odds, Giffords underwent brain surgery and survived. Cohen and West guide viewers through Giffords’ road to recovery as she suffers from aphasia, an illness that inhibits the ability to transform thoughts into words.
Enhancing the beauty, pain, and remarkable perseverance of Giffords’ experience, Kelly took videos of his wife starting day one after her injury. The archival footage is intimate, showing Giffords in physical, speech, and even music therapy, where she cannot form the words to “Happy Birthday.” Yet in a video from years later, we see Giffords belting the song at her own birthday dinner, shining with charisma, surrounded by family and friends.
Expertly woven through Giffords’ personal story is a comprehensive political commentary on the need for heightened background checks for gun purchasers. Clips from mass shootings from 2011 through to the film’s debut at this year’s South by Southwest, accompanied by former President Barack Obama’s account of the devastation, elevate the film's historical and societal impact.
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is a film about grit. It’s a film about feminism, change-making, and defying adversity. Even pre-incident, Gabby Giffords’ life – her unlikely rise to politics and marriage to an astronaut – was documentary-worthy. But this film represents more than a politician’s success story: It embodies grief, dignity, and above all, love.