By Lynn Venhaus
“She’s a fighter like nobody else I know,” states Mark Kelly about the woman he married in 2007, in the new documentary, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.”
For 95 minutes, that description is confirmed in numerous instances. Kelly, former U.S. Navy captain and Space Shuttle commander, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2020, and continues to work with his wife on reforming gun laws. It is truly astonishing that she is even alive, let alone fighting for causes, after an assassination attempt in 2011.
Just as they did with their exceptional documentary “RBG,” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West provide a passionate portrait of the former Congresswoman, depicting her courageous and remarkable recovery from a gunshot to the head, her advocacy regarding gun violence prevention, and her strong marriage to Kelly.
While it seemed like she had a charmed life as an all-American girl growing up, a voracious reader who earned a master’s degree in regional planning at Cornell University and earned a Fulbright Scholarship in Mexico, Giffords has had her battles – and has met many challenges with energy and persistence throughout her business and political career.
Giffords, who changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2000, maintained that she was a centrist. “A good idea is a good idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a Democrat or a Republican,” you hear her say in the film.
Colleagues discussed how she won people over, and someone coined the phrase “Gabbified.” You’ll see why.
Third-generation owner of the tire business her grandfather started, Giffords ran for a seat in the state legislature at age 30. She served in the Arizona House 2001-2003 and the state Senate 2003-2005 before being elected as a U.S. Representative. She had just been elected to her third term when she was meeting with constituents at a Safeway grocery store in a suburb of Tucson, Casa Adobes.
It was a Saturday morning, Jan. 8, 2011. Shots rang out, 19 people were struck, including Gifford, and six people died.
Jared Lee Loughner ran up, shooting into the crowd gathered for “Congress on Your Corner” with a 9 mm pistol that had a 33-round magazine. The crowd detained him, and the next day, he was charged with killing federal government employees, attempting to assassinate a member of Congress, and attempting to kill federal employees. He pleaded guilty to 19 of the 50 charges in a plea bargain where he avoided the death sentence.
The rising political star’s near-death experience obviously changed her life, and now she tirelessly works as an activist for gun violence prevention.
While Giffords was in the hospital, Kelly asked a friend to videotape Gabby’s progress, thinking she might want to see it someday.
These home videos are gut-wrenching, and show how her brain was affected, and what she had to re-learn. They provide a realism that words can’t match, although hearing from a neurosurgeon, her speech pathologist and music therapists add insight to what trauma gunshots triggered.
She remains affected by aphasia, a language impairment, and her right arm is partially paralyzed.
In January 2013, Giffords and her husband started a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions. Its mission is to promote gun-control legislation with elected officials and the public. They repeatedly advocate for keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people like criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill. They have proposed limiting the sale of certain magazines and assault weapons and stopping gun trafficking.
Her heart-tugging journey, of course, is inspiring, and well-told by the filmmakers, with sharp editing by Ilya Chaiken and strong camera work by Dyanna Taylor. Miriam Cutler’s score and well-chosen pop-rock songs enhance the story.
No matter what political party you are affiliated with, you can’t help but admire the woman and her compelling life story.
“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is a 2022 documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving gun violence and some disturbing images and runs 95 minutes. It is currently available on Premium Video on Demand. Lynn’s Grade: A.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.