Filmmaker Julie Cohen hasn’t seen “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest Marvel installment wielding its mighty hammer at the box office. But she is sure of one thing.
“In terms of somebody who can face down anything or resilient superhero champions … Gabby’s got Thor beat,” she says.
She’s talking about Gabby Giffords, the subject of the new documentary she made with directing partner Betsy West. The pair has spent the last few years working on projects about powerful American women, but even they weren’t prepared for what they found.
“Like, how is this person so relentlessly optimistic all the time?” Cohen wondered at first, as she shadowed the former congresswoman from Arizona.
Everyone knows how Giffords survived a mass shooting in 2011 that sent a bullet through her brain, made a miraculous partial recovery and turned her tragedy into action with a gun control group she formed with her husband, astronaut (and now senator) Mark Kelly. That story gets a more nuanced treatment in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” which manages to humanize her even as it renews her place as an icon.
The timing has been up and down — they started filming the movie in 2020 while Kelly was locked in a tense campaign for Senate, and they widely release it this week as the country mourns several more gun massacres — but the focus remains on Giffords herself.
This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to the latest episode of our “Political Theater” podcast.
Q: What was your first meeting with Giffords like? She was already a fan of your documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Betsy West: Our Zoom call was pretty extraordinary. The first thing that happened after the introductions was she lifted up her foot and showed us that she was wearing RBG socks. It was just such a great way to telegraph so many things.
Julie Cohen: Gabby is just a genius at connecting. That’s been true her whole career. You might think, “Is that going to go away, if someone struggles to say long or complex sentences?” But the fact is, she’s just as great a connector as she’s always been.
She and her husband decided they were going to take their iPad and take us on a little tour of their Tucson home. They ended up opening the freezer, and there next to the frozen empanadas, they pulled out this Tupperware thing. They unwrapped this crinkly paper, and then it became clear — this is the portion of Gabby’s skull that was removed after she was shot to help protect her from the dangers of brain swelling.
Q: How did you respond to that?
BW: We were shocked, and then we were laughing. It’s so indicative of the way they deal with this tragedy. When Mark was closing up the freezer, Gabby just said, “Que sera, sera” — what will be will be, and I’m moving on with my life.
JC: As we got to know her for this documentary in the early stages, we were asking, was it the negativity part of her brain that was injured? It sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Like, how is this person so relentlessly optimistic all the time? But when we were putting together the archival footage, we started seeing what she was like in her early political career and her childhood. This is someone who exudes joy at all times.
Q: You include some very vulnerable footage of her from days after the shooting. This is a political biography, but you’re also educating people about aphasia.
BW: On that first call, Mark said, “I set up a video camera pretty early on in Gabby’s recovery. The tapes are all over the place, but maybe I can gather them together.” It was just extraordinary to see someone barely out of a coma, who can only lift a hand and is so disoriented, slowly come back with the help of physical therapists.
I didn’t know this, but Gabby was shot in the left side of her brain where the language center resides, so that was a very profound injury. But apparently, music lives in different places in the brain, and so that’s one way therapists help people, whether they’ve had a stroke or an injury.
Q: She’s constantly singing in the movie — all these expensive songs, by Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Did you see the dollar signs floating away?
JC: Truthfully, you do think about that kind of stuff when you make a doc. We were with Gabby in the garage, and she was getting ready for her ride on a recumbent bike. She started to sing and just kept singing. She went through the Sirius XM ’80s on 8 channel — which I’m a fan of too, I always listen to it on a plane — and she was singing along pretty verbatim to every single song with such verve, like A-ha’s “Take On Me.” We’re looking at each other, like, “Here goes the budget.”
Q: Did your access get reined in a little bit while Kelly was campaigning for Senate?
JC: We worried about that, and then it didn’t really happen. They understood that Gabby was our main character. We did show a little bit of Kelly’s debate with Martha McSally, just to give you a taste of how contentious this whole race was, but we didn’t get into his positions on every single issue, because that’s not a fun movie to go see.
Q: You released this movie into the middle of some grim stuff, with the shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde and Highland Park. But last week Giffords had a happy moment, too, when she accepted the Medal of Freedom at the White House.
BW: When you watch Gabby’s reaction to these things, it’s so interesting, because when bad things happen, you can see how strongly she feels it, and yet her whole attitude is just move ahead, move ahead. And when there are good moments — getting the Medal of Freedom, passing this legislation — again, her attitude is, what more can we do? She’s just a very resolute person.
Q: It seems like the bipartisan legislation that passed is basically what she and Kelly have been talking about for years since they formed their gun safety group. They’re not trying to take away guns from everybody.
JC: The legislation I think in both their views is a true significant step, although it does not go far enough. The Giffords organization and Gabby herself have been pushing for universal background checks forever, since the group started 10 years ago after the Newtown shooting. Now, the new law at least [expands background checks] for 18- to 21-year-olds. Clearly, that’s a significant step, particularly given the situation where mass shooters are quite often young men. But expanding that for everyone 22 and up certainly is something that should happen. This is really just the beginning. She is pushing for more.