SXSW Film Festival Review – ‘Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down’ is a Powerful Testament to a Survivor

SXSW Film Festival Review – ‘Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down’ is a Powerful Testament to a Survivor
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Senator Mark Kelly | Credit: Dyanna Taylor

There are few lawmakers who have been targeted for death and survived. Among the most inspiring stories is that of Gabby Giffords, a congressman from Arizona who was shot in the head during a “Congress on Your Corner” event she was hosting in 2011. Since undergoing her incredible recovery, Giffords has made preventing future gun violence a priority, and her husband Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, now serves as a United States senator for Arizona. The documentary Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down offers a strikingly intimate look at Giffords’ life and the journey she has undertaken over the past decade.

Those who have overcome great struggles are sometimes reticent to share their weaker moments with the general public, preferring instead to present an image of strength and togetherness. This film represents the exact opposite, featuring substantial footage of Giffords as she works her way back to being able to speak and function. It’s jarring to see the instant transformation from Giffords as she was before the shooting to how different she looks physically and the way in which she responds to those helping her to re-learn certain skills and overcome severe aphasia.

Giffords is also very willing to speak on camera even though it is often difficult for her to do so, resulting in shorter, simpler, and more to-the-point answers. It’s particularly telling to see how she is next to her husband, and how their dynamic remains quite strong and vibrant. It’s endearing to see her ride a bicycle that is specifically equipped for her to be able to use alongside him, taking in the beauty of the outdoors and doing something that feels perfectly normal, a concept that for her seems like an impossibility in the aftermath of the shooting due to her brain injury. Watching her coach her husband on how to give a speech and to stand with authority is also heartwarming and funny.

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is a perfect title for a film about a politician who, even while she is no longer in an elected position, uses her voice and influence to create change. A sadly familiar montage of mass shootings is included to underscore just how little has been done on a governmental level to prevent future tragedies in the more than a decade since Giffords was shot, and National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre is seen vowing not to back down in his fight against gun control and instead to insist that the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

In addition to profiling the strong woman at its center, this film also takes up her case. It staunchly refutes LaPierre’s claim by noting that an armed bystander nearly shot the wrong person since he wasn’t aware of who the real shooter was. It’s no surprise that such a potent showcase of a powerful woman who has used her influence for good comes from directing duo Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who earned Oscar nominations for their documentary RBG and also collaborated on My Name is Pauli Murray and Julia.

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is a tribute to Giffords and all that she stands for, serving as an affirming story of recovery and rebuilding that also showcases how much she continues to do to this day. Interviews with former President Barack Obama highlight the influence that she has had on the fight to end gun violence, and it’s clear to see how her political energy has transferred to her husband. This film serves as a testament to the human spirit and the immutable personality that Giffords still projects in her pursuit of a safer and better nation.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down makes its world premiere in the Documentary Spotlight section at the SXSW Film Festival.

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