Review: Resilience, Optimism and a Dedication to Lasting Change Resonate in Uplifting Doc Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down

Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ story is not an easy one to hear, but by the time you get to the present day of it all, it becomes one of the most remarkable, relevant and inspiring journeys you’ll likely hear in your lifetime. And the new documentary for filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG, Julia, I Am Pauli Murray), Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down does an extraordinary job of conveying the tragedy itself and the transformative nature of resilience in the face of said tragedy.

Structured out of chronological order for maximum impact, the doc begins with footage in the immediate aftermath of Giffords being shot in the head in 2011 by a would-be assassin who killed and wounded several others that day in his failed attempt to murder the rising star of the Democratic Party. Having a huge portion of her skull removed in the subsequent brain surgery, Giffords is first captured on film in the earliest part of her recovery, when she’s unable to speak, barely able to move, and both frustrated and determined to get back to the job at hand. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was scheduled to take a landmark mission to the International Space Station just a couple months after the shooting (a mission he completed, despite some reservations). Among other things, Kelly was trained as a videographer by NASA, so he set up a camera in his wife’s room to capture he recovery and rehabilitation, especially her speech therapy sessions. Because of her injuries, she now suffered from the language condition aphasia, making it necessary to re-teach her to speak—the words were in her head, but getting them out continues to be a struggle to this day.

The recovery footage, which shows Giffords’ therapists using things like music and breathing techniques to bring language back into play, is the heart and soul of Won’t Back Down, as you can see the raw determination in Giffords’ eyes as she struggles with each word or series of words. From that point, Cohen and West move into a detailed account of the shooting, which, though isn’t the focus of the film, they manage to do a remarkable job telling the stories of each person who was killed that day, making sure that the impact of those losses carries more weight than anything else. The film also explores the history of Gabby and Mark, both individually and as a couple, and one comes out of the film envious of the partnership the two have seemingly always shared. When he later ran and won the senate seat left open after their friend John McCain passed away, her help in teaching Mark the finer points of campaigning and giving speeches was invaluable (as was lending her voice and name to his campaign).

But it’s her work in the last 10 years, in creating the advocacy group Giffords, that Gabby’s mark on the world may have its most lasting impact. She’s become one of the most vocal and effective activists in the battle for gun-violence prevention and tougher gun laws in the country, something that seems agonizingly pertinent and important today, even more so than when the film debuted in March at the SXSW Film Festival. Just last week, Giffords was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and just before that, President Biden signed the toughest gun laws in decades, something Giffords would likely say was a good first step but far from the end of the fight.

Won’t Back Down features the expected testimonials from colleagues, friends, family members, and most notably, former President Barack Obama, who was in the White House when Giffords was shot. But it also features some unexpected and joyous moments, like Giffords’ daily routine of riding a recumbent bike for miles at a time, listening to music that she sings along with quite vocally (the music budget for the film must have broken the bank). Sometimes watching a perpetually positive person can be a drag if you aren’t so inclined to be as upbeat under pressure or in bad situations, but something about observing Giffords fight against adversity and rise above her near-death experience is motivating and uplifting. This is simply one of the most remarkable times I’ve spent watching a movie this year.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.