Giffords goes from advocate to White House honoree to, now, film subject

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the subject of the documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.” (Photo courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment)

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in a 2011 assassination attempt, during her recovery. (Photo courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment)

WASHINGTON – It’s been a good month for Gabrielle Giffords.

The former Arizona representative-turned-gun-reform-advocate was on hand last month as the most significant gun-control legislation in decades was signed into law. She was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom last week. And Friday was the official opening of the documentary about her fight back from a 2011 assassination attempt.

The documentary, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” opens with the mass shooting at a congressional event at a Tucson grocery in January 2011 that left Giffords, then a Democrat representing Arizona in Congress, near death. It follows her painful recovery from the attack that has left her partially paralyzed and with aphasia, a language impairment.

“For me, it has been really important to move ahead, to not look back,” Giffords told Forbes in an interview about the documentary. “I hope others are inspired to keep moving forward no matter what.”

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An early screening of the movie at The Loft Cinema in Tucson last week was “a little bit of a reunion of former staff members … and a lot of the survivors” of that shooting, said Pam Simon, a former Giffords staffer who survived the attack that killed six and wounded 13, including Giffords.

“I think the filmmakers did an outstanding job of capturing the main point of the film, which is Gabby’s tremendous resilience,” Simon said.

That was echoed by another former staffer, Joni Jones, who called the film “a great representation of Gabby’s spirit and what she has been through and how she has overcome her inability to speak with a message that is loud and clear.”

For former Rep. Ron Barber, who filled Giffords’ House seat after she resigned to focus on her recovery, the file was “an emotional roller coaster.”

The movie went from being “very sad and really brought back some really bad memories” to “inspiring,” as it showed Giffords’ recovery. And parts were funny, as “she’s a really funny person,” said Barber, a shooting survivor who was Giffords’ district director at the time of the attack.

Daniel Hernandez, a former intern who has been credited with saving Giffords’ life, was interviewed for the documentary in his Arizona State Legislature office, where he serves in the House.

Hernandez, who is now running for Giffords’ former seat in Congress, said that when he heard about the film he “was just so excited to see that she was getting the recognition that she was due for the incredible person she is and the amazing things that she’s done.”

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, current Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, in a still from the movie, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.” (Photo courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment)

The film also documents the relationship between Giffords and husband Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who has been by her side through everything. Kelly, a Navy captain serving as an astronaut at the time of the shooting, would become Giffords’ primary caretaker even as he pursued his own political aspirations.

“Mark Kelly comes across as a real hero,” Barber said. “You see in the film what he does to push her and encourage her and to love her and be part of the recovery, it’s really very inspirational.”

After the Tucson premiere, Hernandez said, Giffords and Kelly “went literally from the movie screening in Tucson to D.C. for the Presidential Medal of Freedom Awards Ceremony.” Giffords was one of 17 people awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on July 7 by President Joe Biden, in her case for gun-reform advocacy and for her resiliency as an American.

“It is the honor of a lifetime to receive this award alongside such a truly inspiring and accomplished group of individuals,” Giffords said in a statement about the medal.

Giffords was back at the White House on July 11 to celebrate passage of the historic gun bill that Biden had signed into law on June 25.

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The Safer Communities Act closes the “boyfriend loophole” for protective orders, adds $15 billion for mental health programs and school safety upgrades, and it requires tougher background checks on gun buyers under age 21, among other actions. It is the first major gun-control bill signed in 26 years.

“A better world is possible. I’m often asked how I can stay optimistic during this long, hard haul. This legislation is validation of that optimism,” Giffords in a statement after the bill’s signing.

The documentary had its D.C. premiere just a few hours after the White House celebration for the gun bill.

“It’s been a busy week,” Simon said. “It’s been an amazing week for Gabby.”

The week ended with Friday’s official opening for the documentary. Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen – who have directed biographical documentaries about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, civil rights activist Pauli Murray and iconic TV chef Julia Child – said they were attracted to Giffords’ story.

“We love telling stories of spectacular women and Gabby’s story really fit that bill,” Cohen said. “When you meet Gabby she’s just such an amazing, upbeat, force-of-nature person.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Morgan Fischer expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in political science. Fischer has worked as politics editor for The State Press and interned at RightThisMinute.