A marathon swimmer seeks to become the oldest woman to swim non-stop from Cuba to Florida in Netflix’s newest biopic.
If there’s one thing athletes have in common with artists regardless of what sport in which they compete, it’s that the most eccentric ones are selfish, flawed, obsessive and mysterious enigmas driven by passion for their craft as well as an innate desire to succeed, and the filmmaking duo of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi learned this when profiling free solo rock climber Alex Honnold in their Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo. The husband-and-wife pair of directors have collaborated together in their first narrative feature film Nyad, a gripping sports film about marathon swimmer Diana Nyad from her own autobiography.
In Nyad, the titular swimmer played by Annette Bening is 61 years old, but nevertheless has her sights set on successfully completing a marathon swim from Cuba all the way to Florida, a record she attempted to break 30 years prior but to disappointing returns. This failure along with memories of her tumultuous relationship with her father and swimming coach gnaw at the back of her head like a parasite, and the only way to flick it off is to make things right within herself and her inner child by finishing what she started: do the physically impossible and swim from Havana to Key West without a shark cage.
She enlists her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) to be her coach and personal trainer, as well as John Barlett (Rhys Ifans) to navigate the waters while the mysteriously silent but eager Dee Brady (Karly Rothenberg) pilots the boat from which Bonnie and company keep an eye on Nyad over the course of her endeavor. But Diana runs into a myriad of obstacles while training and setting out for her arduous swim, from her overbearing demeanor toward her team and the resurfacing of her own mental traumas, to challenges of the environment and the physical strain that marathon swimming puts on her aging body.
Annette Bening is truly exceptional in the lead role of Nyad. As the titular athlete, she puts in a career-best performance playing a role with strenuous physical demands, and the results see her put in a performance that’s in a class of its own, particularly how she communicates Diana Nyad’s obsession and manic drive through the wideness of her eyes, and her loud, almost robotic delivery of her meticulously detailed orders, whether it’s for a specific piece of swimming equipment she requires or the type of dinner she wants with Bonnie for her 61st birthday.
And Diana is on a compelling arc of her own that demonstrates Chin and Vasarhelyi’s ability to tell a narrative story on the page and in their direction. While Free Solo was more informative about the obsessive, selfish nature of athletes, Nyad succeeds in telling a story of someone just as flawed as Alex Honnold. However, in her biopic, Nyad gradually progresses and changes as the current takes her toward learning humility and sharing vulnerability with her loved ones. On that note, the film takes an unflinching look at how much physical and mental preparation goes into marathon swimming: the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show intimate scenes of Nyad vomiting from afar or display her horrifically swollen face after a disastrous encounter with a sea creature.
Chin and Vasarhelyi’s experiences in documentary filmmaking also make their presence known in the technical aspects of Nyad to provide a visual look inside the swimmer’s mind and aural experience of the racing thoughts within her stream of consciousness. An example of the former comes in news broadcasts covering Nyad’s failures, achievements and interviews juxtaposed with brief flashbacks that appear shot like reenactments during Diana’s moments of isolation, while the audio from these reports plays over wide shots of Diana and her crew swimming toward the horizon, setting the high personal stakes for her trek from Cuba back to the states.
Of course, Nyad is a movie that takes place in the world of athletics, and like everything in the sports genre, you know where it’s going to go as far as plot points and the inspiring message on which the film concludes, and certain revelations about a character on Nyad’s crew just feel clichéd as far as timing is concerned, regardless of how true they are to this real life story. What’s also worth noting is that the third act is marred by shoddy visual effects, and there are a few instances where characters explain beats in Nyad’s route through expository dialogue for viewers to expect when they would have been served better to arrive in a way that adds more jolting suspense to her swim.
But those are intended to list the health risks Diana puts on herself in taking this arduous journey, and Nyad is an overall compelling and unique entry in the sports film subgenre. Audiences will be informed on the physical expectations and nourishment methods that come with marathon swimming, be endeared by the grounded banter between Diana and Bonnie, and be marveled by Annette Bening’s commanding turn in her career-best dramatic performance. It’s refreshing to see women her age take roles like this and deliver a message of hope to boot, and that’s why Nyad is a solid film worth seeing and rooting for this award season.