Runtime: 95 minutes
Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West
By Joan Amenn
Julie Cohen and Betsy West are the Dynamic Duo who brought us “RBG” (2018) and “My Name is Pauli Murray” (2021) so it is only fitting that they now focus on another inspiring woman in this new documentary about Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords. Her story would be scoffed at as too unbelievable if it were a work of fiction, but Cohen and West bring us into her life in sometimes painful detail.
A rising star in Arizona politics, Gifford was elected to Congress and it seemed the sky would be the limit for her promising future. Perhaps not even the sky could hold her back since she fell in love with astronaut Mark Kelly and the two married in 2007. The best parts of this overall excellent film are the scenes of Kelly and Gifford together. Seldom does a couple appear to truly compliment and complete each other as they do. They have had their relationship tested in ways that few people have experienced and seem to only have grown stronger together for it.
Cohen and West do not hold back on the graphic details of the horrific shooting that occurred on January 8, 2011, which critically injured Giffords and killed six people, including a nine-year-old girl. It is extremely hard to watch, as is the footage of Gifford in the hospital afterwards. Remarkably, we watch her brain surgery happening on the same day as Kelly docked the space shuttle Endeavor to the International Space Station. How he managed to keep his focus on such an intricate procedure knowing what was transpiring on the ground is just mind boggling.
President Obama visited Giffords in the hospital which certainly shows not only his compassion but also, how well thought of she was as a member of Congress. However, the more compelling hospital scenes are of Gabby struggling to regain her voice and mobility. She is astonishingly strong, even when she is frustrated to tears with her aphasia. Her sense of humor, energy and inner drive seem to burn brighter with every step of her recovery.
“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is a glossy magazine-style look at an incredible woman but it also includes small scenes where we get to see the essence of her indomitable character. It is essential viewing to understand the true impact of gun violence in the US. Oh and whatever you do, don’t ask Mark and Gabby to show you what they keep in a Tupperware container in their freezer. You don’t want to know.