The forthcoming documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” traces the former congresswoman’s journey since the January 8, 2011, shooting that resulted in a traumatic brain injury.
Part somber, part humorous, the film, due in theaters July 15, is sometimes shocking.
During a tour of their home, they made a pit stop in their kitchen and reached into the freezer. Among the frozen sliced mangos and empanadas, is a blue plastic Ziploc container marked “Do not discard. Not trash.”
It was a piece of Giffords’ skull.
“Sera, sera,” Giffords says. “Whatever will be, will be,” her husband, Mark Kelly, adds.
“It was pretty emblematic of their whole attitude toward Gabby’s injury,” said documentarian Julie Cohen.
“There’s really no subject for this couple that is beyond figuring out a way to make light of because if you don’t deal with these challenges with humor, you might just become crunched down by them.”
Giffords, a recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, saw her life change in a supermarket parking lot that day when the up-and-coming politician was shot at point-blank range by Jared Lee Loughner.
But “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” isn’t a documentary about that day. It’s about her legacy.
Cohen and Betsy West — the team behind the documentary “RBG” — pieced together a nonlinear “feminist love story” about the former congresswoman’s road to recovery.
It dives into her relationship with former astronaut husband-now senator Kelly. The couple, who built successful careers in their own right, have joined forces in “bridge-building” politics and national gun reform.
In the film’s opening, Giffords says, “so many people hurt.” On screen, footage showed her carefully placing white flowers on the National Mall for a memorial honoring gun violence victims.
In 2013, she co-founded the research and advocacy group Giffords with a mission to end gun violence. It came after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“A lot of people died, always connected to them,” she says. “Grateful to survive.”
Giffords is actively recovering from aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage. Despite her difficulty with speaking, the filmmakers focused on Giffords’ voice in the film.
“Despite the fact that she has language difficulties and aphasia, she is still an extraordinary communicator,” Cohen says.
Giffords’ intelligence and cognitive capabilities are unaffected by her diagnosis. She’s quick witted and the words are on the tip of her tongue.
West and Cohen display Giffords’ interpersonal interactions and direction of conversations through other means of communication, such as touch and singing.
Perhaps one of Giffords’ lesser-known skills is her vast knowledge of ’80s pop music.
“We had no idea she’d be bursting into song so frequently,” West said during a directors’ Q&A after a private film showing at the Loft Cinema.
To aptly show this side of Giffords, the directors exceeded their music licensing budget.
“We couldn’t resist because the songs were so beautiful and appropriate,” West said.
The music selection was indeed fitting. If the Talking Heads’ “And She Was” doesn’t encapsulate Giffords’ tenacity, then John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” surely pays tribute to the Tucson legend.
Music provided Giffords an entryway to language, as aphasia affects different areas of the brain across both hemispheres, said Angie Glynn, Giffords’ speech pathologist during the film. Language affects the left hemisphere of the brain.
“When there’s been damage to the language center, there are still music centers within the brain that are still preserved,” Glynn said.
Giffords’ musical inclinations go further than trivia. She plays the French horn. Music therapy allows her humor and personality to shine, despite her struggles with perseverations, or repetitions of specific words or responses.
She struggled with repeating the word, “chicken.”
There is no denying the film’s sentimentality, thanks, in part, to Kelly’s directorial decision to record Giffords’ journey toward recovery. A montage of home videos added a special touch to the film.
“I thought at some point whether it was a year or 10 years later, Gabby was going to want to see what she went through,” Kelly said during the film.
Perhaps one of the more intimate scenes in the film is a captured moment of frustration, as Giffords’ clings to her speech therapist.
“Frustration is a normal part of the grieving process when you’ve had an injury like this,” Glynn said.
A young person with great ideas
Her goal after recovery was to return to Congress. Giffords was a well-known centrist with a “kindred spirit” and an authenticity that appealed to those on both sides of the aisle.
“When you meet her, you get ‘Gabified,’” said Ron Barber, former congressional staffer.
Originally registered as a Republican, Giffords switched her affiliation to Democrat in 2000, before running for office in the Arizona State House of Representatives. After serving a term in 2001, she was elected to Arizona State Senate in 2002 and again in 2004.
“She had the energy and ambition to go really far in politics,” said former President Barack Obama in the film.
On January 9, 2011, the day after the “Congress on Your Corner” event, she and Barber were supposed to fly back to Washington, D.C., to “plan her next move.” She was to meet with a fertility specialist the following Monday in Bethesda.
The 2011 shooting is one of Tucson’s darkest days. The shooting at her campaign office’s 21st meet-and-greet killed six, including Giffords’ outreach director, Gabe Zimmerman, Federal District Court Chief Judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Greene.
Giffords and the other victims were transported to University Medical Center (now Banner University Medical Center) after the shooting. Eighteen days later, she was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann, a Houston rehabilitation hospital in Houston, where she spent the next five months.
Meanwhile, Kelly was training as commander of Final Flight Six of Space Shuttle Endeavour, mere months before launch. He had spent about 14 years prior training as an astronaut.
The filmed cued David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” as Giffords and Kelly put on their respective helmets ahead of their missions.
Kelly was to dock with the International Space Station and Giffords needed a cranioplasty, a procedure to replace the part of her skull that was removed after a craniectomy, the removal of bone.
Road to recovery
Seven months after the shooting, Giffords returned to the Capitol to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling. She received a standing ovation.
Kelly retired from the Navy and NASA after his final flight and Gabby stepped down from public service. Both returned to Tucson to focus on her recovery.
“At the heart of Gabby and Mark’s relationship is a profound friendship, (with) common values, common purpose and a love of humor,” West said.
The two were ambitious and independent individuals who supported each other’s endeavors. After the shooting, their “feminist marriage” worked for them, splitting time between Houston, Florida, Washington, D.C., and Tucson.
Feminist love stories are on brand for West and Cohen’s storytelling. Similar to “RBG,” there are commonalities between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Marty Ginsburg and Giffords and Kelly, including the overwhelming support offered by the husbands.
Since the shooting, Kelly has cared for Giffords and eventually threw his hat in the political ring with his wife beside him.
“After he was elected, we have a scene that we love with Gabby giving Mark advice about how to deliver his maiden speech to the Senate that shows both Gabby’s acumen about connecting with people and also the humor of his wife deliberately giving her husband advice,” West said.
Kelly is up for re-election in August.
In 2013, Giffords and Kelly attended Loughner’s sentencing, which resulted in jail without the possibility of parole.
“Jail, jail, jail. Mentally ill,” Giffords said in the film.
It’s been 11 years since the shooting, the film showed neither Giffords’ nor Kelly’s spirits have been broken.
“I love to talk, I’m Gabby, and I’m so quiet now,” Giffords said in the film.
Maybe slightly quieter: when the two aren’t traveling on Kelly’s campaign trail, the two are traveling throughout the United States, pushing for bipartisan gun reform.
The producers hope viewers of the thought-provoking film will admire the couple’s relationship and learn what it takes to live with a traumatic brain injury, Cohen said.
“We hope that people will be a little ‘Gabified’ from experiencing this extraordinary person,” West said.
“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”
In theaters Friday, July 15