A remarkable true story of tenacity, friendship and the triumph of the human spirit, NYAD recounts a riveting chapter in the life of world-class athlete Diana Nyad. Three decades after giving up marathon swimming in exchange for a prominent career as a sports journalist, at the age of 60, Diana (four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening) becomes obsessed with completing an epic swim that always eluded her: the 110 mile trek from Cuba to Florida, often referred to as the “Mount Everest” of swims. Determined to become the first person to finish the swim without a shark cage, Diana goes on a thrilling, four-year journey with her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster) and a dedicated sailing team.
If destiny is in a name than Diana Nyad, which combines the huntress with sea nymph, is as prophetic as any name ever given. She was born to hunt and break long distance swimming records. Surprisingly Nyad, the Netflix biopic of her Cuba to Key West marathon swim must deal with her godlike monomania, indomitable will, her failures, flaws and abuse, essentially the whole prickly human being.
A character that abrasive and strong willed needs an actress willing to sublimate her ego to let the character’s ego shine. Annette Bening has explored ego centric folks in many of her latest roles, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool being just the latest example. She gets the nod solely based on experience. Still there needs to be a counterbalance to make her willfulness sympathetic— someone long suffering, patient, understanding, with the knowledge that comes with being a long time friend and once time companion to coach her and explain her in a humane, kind way to the audience. Jodie Foster’s resume fulfills that to a T.
The directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, documentarians making their narrative debut, explored this kind of obsession, in the magnificent climbing feature Free Solo, which portrayed cliff scaler, Alex Honnold. They’ve known and seen the intensive training, failures, internal struggles, these athletes go through to succeed. They’re intimate with Nyad’s competitive mind set and the obstacles and dangers the sea and its creatures present to her challenge- and how to portray this dramatically and effectively, especially her abusive past that is a motivation and sympathetic scale balancing her good and bad flaws out. They know and show her coping techniques that are both her demon and therapy.
Nyad is only peripherally acknowledges the controversy that Nyad didn’t achieve the swim completely unassisted. Her swim has never been fully certified by either Guiness or the professional long swimming organizations. They’re are gaps in the record keeping, conflicting eye witness accounts. Nyad goes through great lengths to make sure that both humans and sea life never touch her. Nyad is her witness and semi-official record, her retort.
The directors are more interested in the personal drama- the human relationships and conflicts that must be vanquished for her to succeed. Foster is the primary support. The prickly diva needs her long time bestie to make her sympathetic to the witnessing world. Foster takes that and twists it into something deeper, subtler, more moving. Foster is the film’s hear and soul- her quiet acting instincts, her magnetic charisma, her dazzling dressed down un sexiness. She keeps Nyad from drifting into a massive ego trip. Rhys Ifans as the navigator John Bartlett also keeps Nyad on course. He’s a milder Ahab harpooning his dreams to Nyad’s success, one last dying hurrah. His performance is crusty unsentimental. He gives as good as he gets. His sea knowledge is crucial to both her success and survival.
Ultimately Nyad is a celebration of survival, about aging gracefully and with courage and conviction, albeit crankily at times, about refusing to be defined by other’s view of them.
Nyad gets a 4.0 out of 5 or an A-. It’s streaming on Netflix.
Find a Way
by Diana Nyad
- September 1, 2023(Telluride)
- October 20, 2023(United States)