THE STORY – Sixty-four-year-old marathon swimmer Diana Nyad attempts to become the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida.
THE CAST – Annette Bening, Jodie Foster & Rhys Ifans
THE TEAM – Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin (Directors), & Julia Cox (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
Directing couple Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are no strangers to stories of wild grit. Most known for their documentaries, the Academy Award-winning “Free Solo” and “The Rescue,” the pair are quite familiar with exploring the psyches of adrenaline junkies and their unbelieve athletic pursuits against all odds. Who could be better to tell the story of Diana Nyad? In Chin and Vasarhelyi’s narrative directorial debut, their intrinsic instincts toward telling stories in a crowd-pleasing manner are on full display, just without the threat of real-life peril they’ve faced in their documentaries. But that doesn’t mean “Nyad” isn’t cut from the same cloth as their documentary films. In fact, it shares much of the same DNA, telling a remarkable true story that will have audiences believing in the possibilities of what humans are capable of achieving with the proper support and determination.
Nyad is Greek for “water nymph,” something Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) never wants anyone to forget as she constantly reminds others. Being in the water is who she is. It’s part of her DNA. She was born to make history in the water and knows it, no matter what society or those closest to her tell her otherwise. Decades before the story’s main plot begins, Diana set numerous distance records for marathon swimming. Often swimming for eight, ten, twenty, or more hours, few attempted what Diana regularly accomplished. She then set her sights on her greatest challenge: swimming from Cuba to the Florida Keys. That amounts to over 60 hours in the water, non-stop. It’s a ridiculously insane idea that experts believed wasn’t humanly possible and no one had ever accomplished until that point. In fact, in 1978, Diana failed at this monumental attempt and ended her swimming career on her 30th birthday.
More than thirty years later, something comes over her. Turning 60, she’s never gotten over the dream of the 103-mile Cuba-Florida swim and decides she has to try it again. Despite not swimming in decades, Diana’s convinced she’s mentally stronger than ever and needs to regain physical shape to convince others she can conceivably pull this off. Enlisting her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) as her coach, she begins building a team around her to turn this crazy dream into a reality.
What makes “Nyad” work as a narrative feature film is the relationship between Diana and Bonnie, given life by Bening and Foster’s performances. Diana is eccentric and frustrating, with a nasty habit of alienating everyone in her life. In lesser hands than Bening’s, Diana would be considered unlikable and unbearable to be around. In what will likely be regarded as one of the best roles of her already long and established career, Bening is transformative in a physically demanding part that surely required a lot from the 65-year-old actress. When Diana is paired with Bonnie, whom Foster imbues with such strength and unbreaking platonic love for Diana (it’s refreshing to see pure friendship depicted on screen), their relationship becomes the film’s beating heart as it undergoes soaring highs and crushing lows culminating in a breathtakingly cathartic finale. Providing emotional support but knowing she may be placing her best friend in harm’s way, the grounded complexity of Bonnie allows Foster to deliver her best performance since “The Silence of The Lambs.” As much as the film is an ode to fortitude and unimaginable feats of athleticism, the story of their friendship is the more moving and rewarding element of “Nyad” that gives it the spirit it needs to get to the finish line.
The makeup work on Bening might seem subtle, but it’s an unsung hero of “Nyad.” Throughout Diana’s multiple attempts at the swim, she swells up, gets rashes, gets sunburnt, and the salt from the water makes its way into her skin. What’s more impressive is how the makeup work has to remain convincing even in the water. It helps sell the challenge of Diana’s swim and aids in Bening’s performance.
As Diana continues her pursuit of the swim with the help of the best boat captain she can get, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifan), the film starts to get a bit repetitive. Many sports biopics revolve around one specific game or challenge, “Nyad,” however, showcases Diana’s many attempts to achieve her goal. It’s true to life, though the film starts to get bogged down by each attempt, feeling as if it’s the one only to find out later it’s not. Each failed swim frustrates Diana and her team, leaving the audience ready to move on after emotionally investing so much in what came before. Julia Cox’s screenplay dives further into cliches along the way, showcasing flashbacks to horrific trauma Diana experienced as a child at the hands of her old swimming instructor. Again, true to life as her childhood is, it feels forced into the story, detracting from the audience’s attention toward her swim and relationship with Bonnie. Also unhelpful are the inter-spliced news and documentary footage showcasing the real Diana Nyad. They don’t give us vital information and only serve to break away from the film’s established reality, causing a bit of distraction in the process, though some may find how these are spliced into the swimming sequences to be skillfully done by editor Christopher Tellefsen.
As frustrating as some conventional filmmaking choices are, Chin and Vasarhelyi’s direction and Tellefsen’s editing throughout Diana’s swims create a gripping atmosphere. It’s natural for audiences to find themselves wrapped up in Diana’s journey and to root for stories like this, “Nyad” builds on that emotion to create a thrilling third act. The swimming is fascinating, but the depth of Diana and Bonnie’s relationship gives the film its power. Their tension, bickering, and love make all the sacrifices and potential danger worth it. Even knowing, or at least assuming, how the story will end, hard-hearted viewers might break out into goosebumps and applause. Thanks to Foster and Bening’s powerhouse performances, “Nyad” is an engrossing, triumphant, and inspirational true story worth cheering for.