Nyad Review | Against the Current

by Andrew Parker

Nyad is an inspirational and empowering sports drama that balances traditional (but well done) crowd pleaser tropes with a healthy dose of edge and realness. Based on the middled age comeback and accomplishments of once retired marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have deftly created a biopic that can make crowds cheer at successes and gasp at setbacks, while simultaneously depicting their main character as a flawed, difficult, and complex person. Nyad might contain the requisite speeches and musical swells that are the bread and butter of sporting movies, but it also never fears adding layers of toughness and grit that make everything feel a lot more authentic.

In her prime, Diana Nyad was one of the most celebrated distance swimmers in the world; a member of an elite group of maybe a dozen people on the planet who were capable of swimming tremendous distances for days on end with minimal in-water breaks for nutrition and fluids; the kinds of athletes for whom traversing the English Channel would be just another warm up. Needless to say, such a lifestyle takes a toll on the body and mind, and Nyad was virtually retired by the time she reached the age of 28, following a lifetime of being groomed for greatness. (As she’s all too happy to remind people any chance she gets, Nyad means “water nymph” in Greek.)

Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film, based on Nyad’s autobiography, joins up with Diana (played by Annette Bening) as she’s celebrating her sixtieth birthday. Despite her age and having foregone much of her training in the past three decades, Diana begins toying with the idea of having one final go at the swim that she never got to complete. The 110 mile journey between Cuba and the Florida Keys has been described as “the Mount Everest of swimming,” but in truth, it might be harder than climbing the world’s most famously deadly mountain. It takes roughly 36 hours in the water through some of the ocean’s toughest and most unpredictable currents. Factor in the weather and a laundry list of different shark and jellyfish to watch out for, and the odds of completing the swim drop even further. Although she was unsuccessful in her twenties, Diana, who has spent the interim working as a sports commentator, writer, and public speaker, decides to get back into shape and have another go, with the help of her best friend/former lover/coach, racquetball legend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), and seasoned boat navigator and logistical genius John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans).

It would be easy to make a stock version of Diana Nyad’s journey back into the water. There have been plenty of movies about “old timers” who realize that they have to dig deeper than every before to accomplish tasks that once came so naturally. Nyad’s story comes with its own set of adversities (nagging injuries, lack of corporate sponsorship for a journey that costs about half a million for each attempt) and deeply rooted traumas (abandonment, the pressures of being a child athlete, abusive coaches), all of which could be tailored into a rather basic feel good movie. But in the hands of documentary veterans Vasarhelyi and Chin (Free Solo, The Rescue), who specialize in depicting people who engage in extreme endeavours, Nyad is more about the psychology of the people involved than the potential endorphin release viewers can experience if the characters should succeed.

The relationship between Diana and Bonnie provides a lot of heart and empathy throughout Nyad, and in spite of the fact that it’s so unromantic in tone that there’s never a “will they or won’t they” feeling. Both are queer women that are virtually inseparable, but they crossed that bridge once and firmly decided it wasn’t for them. But the bond between them is unshakeable, and the chemistry between Bening and Foster is impeccable, with the two acting out the sort of deeply ingrained shorthand that comes so naturally between best friends and colleagues.

They are also vastly different people, with each performer getting a chance to put in some of their finest work fleshing them out. Diana has grit and determination, but she also has an enormous ego; the type of person who doesn’t even realize when meeting a stranger at a party that they’ve monopolized the conversation by describing in lugubrious detail how wonderful and important they are. Diana is so staunchly against taking no for an answer that she can deliver a merciless verbal lashing onto anyone brave enough to step to her. Bening, whose physical and dramatic commitment to portraying such a high level athlete at an advanced age is nothing short of otherworldly, is never afraid to make Nyad seem unlikable and sometimes contemptuous. As is the case with most of these films, there will come a point where Diana will have to learn that her quest for lasting glory is actually a team effort, but Bening and the filmmakers never soften that winner’s edge that makes their subject who she is.

As for Foster, she hasn’t had a role this meaty in quite some time, and she never portrays Bonnie as a stereotypical, tough loving coach. In fact, Bonnie is the opposite. Although she talks a good game and is tough enough to stand up to Diana’s occasionally steamrolling tactics, everything Bonnie does comes from a place of love and care. She knows she can’t talk Diana out of this, so she never tries. She’s only there to realize when the line between the sane and the insane has been crossed. Just like these movies will include a scene where Diana will have to take a moment to reevaluate her ways, Bonnie will have her requisite moment to step away from what increasingly becomes a bad situation and reassess her life choices. It’s brilliantly played by Foster and pairs note perfectly what what Bening’s doing in the lead. 

It should also be noted that for his part as the personality who seemingly falls between Diana and Bonnie, Ifans is also doing some career best work as the perceptive, always calculating, and whip-smart navigator. When any combination of the three leads are on screen interacting with one another, it feels like Nyad can’t go wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes even the best of Chin and Vasarhelyi’s intentions go awry.

The film stumbles greatly whenever flashing back to Diana’s youth, and the training, abuse, and abandonment she suffered. Everything is shiny, polished, and presented with dream-like tricks of light that look and feel ugly and icky when one realized the traumatic nature of what’s going on. It’s a bad look that makes some of the most devastating emotional material feel hokey, cheesy, and manufactured. It’s record scratchingly bad filmmaking when presented in contrast to just how thrilling and awe inspiring everything becomes when Diana is out in the water. Similarly, visual flights of fancy that the filmmakers employ to depict moments when an exhausted and spent Nyad is hallucinating in the water add little except for some unintentional snickers. These moments feel wildly out of place amid some truly stunning moments at sea that are visually and emotionally striking, and other intimate moments where the characters are simply allowed to speak whatever’s on their mind in natural ways. Chin and Vasarhelyi often pull successfully from their documentary background to create great drama (which extends to including some real life footage of the people involved at various points in the film to add context), but their attempts to turn tragedy into melodrama are unfortunate.

Although Nyad is mostly solid on a conceptual level, and the performances are unequivocally excellent, there are some sour notes holding things back from being a complete package. The things in Nyad that don’t work border on the embarrassing, but the script from Julia Cox and a solid point of view make this one a slight cut above, and makes it easier to take those missteps in stride. Nyad is a film where tough minded people do seemingly impossible things, but one that does a great job probing into why anyone would sign up for something like this in the first place. It’s inspirational, sure, but just like Diana trip across the ocean, Nyad makes the viewer do some work for it.

Nyad opens in select Canadian cinemas, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, on Friday, October 20, 2023. It is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, November 3.

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