A gunman tried to silence Gabby Giffords. A new doc shows how she recovered her voice

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A woman poses for a portrait against a gold background.
Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since a would-be assassin shot her and 18 others during a meet-and-greet outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson one January morning in 2011, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has struggled to speak. The bullet that entered an inch above her left eye and tore through her brain left her with aphasia, along with a paralyzed right arm and other physical impairments, making it a daily battle to get the words in her head to come out of her mouth.

When Giffords sings, though, the words are right there, bypassing the damaged language circuits and flowing as effortlessly as they once did. As it happens, Giffords is a born performer and a bit of a ham, and within minutes of arriving for an interview in Los Angeles, she lets out a big smile and raises her left arm as she croons one of her favorites: “Country Roads” by John Denver.


“Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,” she sings. “Life is old there, older than the trees / Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.”

If only it were always so easy. ”Aphasia really sucks,” says Giffords, 52, offering an explanation of her condition that she has honed through repetition. “The words are there in my brain. I just can’t get them out. I love to talk — I’m Gabby! So quiet now.”

Although she was forced to end her career in Congress in 2012 to focus on her recovery, Giffords has hardly been silenced by the shooting that claimed the lives of six others. A decade later, she has become one of the nation’s most prominent voices advocating for sensible gun safety legislation, leading an organization dedicated to curbing the scourge of gun violence and earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom this month. Now, her story of perseverance has been chronicled in the inspiring, if heartbreakingly timely, documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” which hits theaters today.

Two women embrace on a grass lawn
Former congresswoman and gun violence survivor Gabby Giffords, right, embraces Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., at a Gun Violence Memorial installation on the National Mall in Washington, in early June. The flowers represent the number of Americans who die from gun violence each year.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who made 2018’s Oscar-nominated hit “RBG” and last year’s Julia Child doc “Julia,” “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is arriving in the wake of mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Ill., and just weeks after Congress passed the most significant bipartisan gun legalization in decades and a controversial Supreme Court ruling expanded gun rights. But while the gun issue continues to roil a bitterly divided country, Giffords expresses hope that perhaps, as we’ve so often heard in the past, this time might really be different.


Asked what she would like people to take away from the film, Giffords says, in a halting but emphatic staccato, “Save lives. Save lives. Shooting. Shooting. Terrible. Terrible. Terrible.”

“Gabby is such an inspiration, not just to me, but to so many Arizonans and Americans across the country,” Giffords’ husband, former astronaut-turned-Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, says via email. “This documentary is the chance for Gabby to tell her story in a way most people have never seen before. And I’m just excited for people to watch it and learn more about her, her recovery and how tough she is.”

The project’s roots go back to early 2013, when former “Oprah Winfrey Show” executive producer Lisa Erspamer met Giffords after the deadly Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., as she consoled victims’ families.

“I remember being really moved by her connection to these families who were going through such horror,” says Erspamer, who is a producer of the new documentary. “Despite not being able to necessarily say everything that she’s thinking, she somehow really shows up and you can really feel her. I talked to a friend who is really close to her and said, ‘You know, there should be a documentary about Gabby someday.’ ”

In spring 2020, Erspamer arranged for Giffords and Kelly to meet with West and Cohen via Zoom. Giffords was wearing RBG socks, which she proudly showed off, and was eager to share her story with filmmakers whose work she admired. “I love the film ‘RBG,’ ” Giffords says. “Betsy and Julie do a wonderful job of celebrating women’s lives. Strong women get things done.”


It didn’t take long for West and Cohen to realize how compelling a subject Giffords would be. “At one point, Gabby and Mark said, ‘Do you want a tour of the house?’ ” West recalls. “So they started walking around: ‘Here’s the living room, here’s this, here’s that.’ Then they went to the freezer and showed us what was inside, and we were like, ‘Whoa, OK. We have to do this film.’ ”

In the back of the freezer, in a Tupperware container next to some empanadas, was a piece of Giffords’ cranium that the two had saved as a kind of memento.

Of course, working with a subject whose ability to communicate is compromised posed a unique set of challenges. But West and Cohen were intent on making Giffords’ aphasia a central part of the film, using footage shot by Kelly of her early months of recovery, interviewing her surgeon and speech pathologists and filming Giffords as she worked with her speech therapist to record a campaign commercial for Kelly’s 2020 Senate run.

“This is Gabby’s story, and we wanted a lot of it to be in her words,” says Cohen. “When she’s giving a long, complicated, thoughtful answer, there is some preparation that goes into that, so we just said, ‘Let’s make the preparation part of the story. Let’s see her working with her speech therapist.’ And for so many of the interviews, we had Gabby paired with someone else, like Mark or her mom. Seeing her interact and connect with someone else really gives you a sense of who she is in this deep way.”

Two women pose for a portrait against a gold background.
Co-directors, Betsy West, left and Julie Cohen, who teamed up to make the documentary, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)


During the course of filming, West and Cohen were surprised to discover the way that singing offered Giffords a neurological bridge back to her old verbal fluency. “Gabby would just burst into song,” says West. “It’s been a really key part of her rehabilitation and continues to be a great way for her to express herself.” (Securing the rights to all the songs Giffords sings on camera — including Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — added significantly to the budget, West notes. “But each one was so good, we were like, ‘Oh, we can’t cut that.’ ”)

A one-time Republican-turned-Democrat who is both a gun owner and a victim of gun violence, Giffords is uniquely positioned to speak to all sides of the debate. But while the movie highlights her efforts on behalf of gun safety legislation, West and Cohen were intent on making a moving and personal portrait of Giffords rather than a polemical message film about a hot-button political issue.

“You’re asking people to sit down for 90 minutes and watch a movie,” says Cohen. “Gabby is mesmerizing and her story so compelling. It also happens to illustrate a bigger issue. It’s not dissimilar to doing a film about [Supreme Court] Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg; that was a story about her but it was also about constitutional law and the 14th Amendment and other things that you wouldn’t want to make necessarily the title of your film…. We just hope that people come away with the feeling of joyousness that Gabby gives in so many different circumstances. We want people coming out of the theater laughing and singing.”

For Giffords, although her life will never be what it was before that tragic day in 2011, it is as full in its own way as it ever was. “I’m so busy,” she says. “Zoom calls. Work, work, work. Yoga twice a week. French horn. Spanish lessons. Ride my bike. PBS. And all over again.”

With that, she feels another song coming on, one she sang a lifetime ago when, in a high school production of the musical “Annie,” she starred as the plucky orphan whose indomitable optimism ends up inspiring the most powerful politicians in Washington, D.C.


“The sun will come out tomorrow,” she sings. “So you’ve got to hang on ’til tomorrow, come what may.”

VIDEO | 07:53
LA Times Today: In Gabby Giffords documentary, singing is a way to speak

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