There couldn’t be a timelier documentary these days than Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who previously were responsible such female-forward fare with their 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsberg doc RBG, which was Oscar-nominated. They also served up Julia, which focused on the life of the French chef Julia Child. They also did My Name is Pauli Murray, who, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, boldly fought for social justice. The non-binary Black lawyer, activist, poet, and priest who influenced both Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall, which both came out in 2021.
Given that Giffords was bestowed with a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work promoting gun safety measures by President Biden this past week, the doc focuses on the horrible day when she did a meet-and-greet with her constituents at a suburban Safeway super market in Arizona on January 8, 2011. Instead, chaos reigned. She was shot in her head and suffered a near-fatal head injury by a male sniper while six others at the event were also killed, including a 9-year-old girl. The doc zeroes in on her healing process, captured by her devoted spaceman husband as she was determined to re-learn how to speak once more.
A rising political star at the time, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate, serving first in the Arizona legislature and later in the U.S. Congress. This gutsy gal survived an assassination attempt and would become a co-founder of Giffords.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing gun violence. The doc zeroes in on her grueling healing process, with her husband, Mark Kelly, the former Space Shuttle Commander — who is currently a junior U.S. senator from Arizona – by her side. We witness as Giffords also struggles with afacisia, the loss of the ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage. She must also wear a special cap to protect what is left of her skull.
What is interesting is that early in her recovery she found easier to sing her words than speak. In fact, West and Cohen take advantage of her melodic use of music in the background. Such as when they play David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in connection to her spaceman husband’s one-time profession as well as A-ha’s “Take on Me!” At one point, Gabby even plays a French horn.
During the medal ceremony, Biden introduced Giffords as “one of the most courageous people I have ever known,” adding “She’s the embodiment of a single signature American trait: Never, ever give up.” That is a pretty good summation of the Democrat’s fortitude in the face of tragedy. But, someone in the documentary says that Biden was “Gabbinized” by Giffords.
The last scene in the movie shows Giffords riding a specially designed bike alongside her husband as she belts out John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Road.” As West and Cohen told Deadline, Giffords “is the hardworking, dragon-slaying, 80’s hits-singing, recumbent bike-riding hero we all need right now. We can’t wait for audiences to fall in love with her as much as we have.”