October 18th, 2023
STARRING: ANNETTE BENING, JODY FOSTER, RHYS IFANS
DIRECTED BY: JIMMY CHIN, ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
To swim one lap in an Olympic-sized pool is a lot to me. For Diana Nyad that’s less than nothing. It’s as simple as taking a step. The story of this courageous and determined swimmer is one that I had no idea about. A world and Olympic champion swimmer, Nyad achieved everything she could in the sport, but for a fierce competitor like her, there had to be more. And so, at the age of 26, Diana accomplished the incredible feat of swimming around Manhattan Island in eight hours. She would conquer one long distance after the next, and with each accomplishment, the stakes went higher. Nyad attempted to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys and failed for the first time. An easy thing could have been for her to fold up. Be happy for the accomplishments and live life knowing she tried. But for a fierce competitor such as Nyad, it would eat at her, and no matter the age of 65 or those who said she couldn’t do it, Diana Nyad set out to reach her goal. Nyad is the biopic of that determination, with an excellent performance by Annette Bening, revealing a story about the sheer will and power of never giving up. Take a dip with Nyad.
We catch up with Nyad (Bening) when she is turning sixty. She lives in Florida, with her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster who is great, as always), where the two of them bicker at one another like an old married couple. Hitting sixty is a big age, causing a moment of reflection, and after a long hiatus from the pool, Nyad is inspired to try again. Why not? She knows she can do it. She just needs a better team, better training, and more to prove. Nobody knows Nyad better than Bonnie, so she becomes her coach, and they locate the best guide on the coast, in John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans doing some of his best work). She only has to watch out for sharks, jellyfish, terrible currents, and hurricane-type weather and then she’s got it. Cuba to the Keys at age 60. Piece of cake…
The direction is the first narrative feature from the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaking team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Their choice of subject matter makes total sense, as the team behind Free Solo has an excellent grasp on humans who set out to do the impossible. Working off the screenplay by Julia Cox and the book by Nyad- “Find a Way”, Chin and Vasarhelyi merge a bit of their documentary background, with actual footage of Nyad’s swims, interviews she did with Johnny Carson, and news coverage of each swim. Although some of the narrative drama can become bogged down with cheesy emotions and standard biopic tropes, much like their subject, you can notice that this was a challenge for the directors as well. They had conquered the doc and now the narrative feature has transferred nicely into their wheelhouse.
The most praise, however, can’t go to the direction, but genuinely the performance by Bening. The American Beauty actress is delivering some of her greatest work here. Not just because she embodies the energy and stubborn determination of Nyad, but because she does the physical side as well. All of the swimming looks intense. It’s obvious that Bening didn’t actually swim the full 53-hour journey but there is great physicality in this role, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, as you notice the oscillation of her arms, the sweating, and the hard work it took for Beining to be the title character.
Although the run-time can feel like it goes too long, it’s not without its purpose, as this isn’t just about Nyad’s lone successful run, but about all five attempts. She starts at the age of 60 and does not finally touch down on the shore till she is 65, that is a part of the journey. That includes each moment of failure, where a box jellyfish stung her face, causing her to stop, or torrential rain that nearly pushed her off towards Texas. There may not be doubt along the way that she will eventually make it, but what Chin and Vasarhelyi reveal is the repetition of it all, the constant swimming that broke friendships down, put others at risk, and nearly took Nyad’s life on multiple occasions. Some might have called it stupid. Some might find it to be daring. What can’t be taken away from Diana Nyad is that at the age of 65, she accomplished something that had never been done. Age is just a number and Nyad is my new American hero.
NYAD IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS FRIDAY OCTOBER 20TH, 2023 AND ON NETFLIX FRIDAY NOVEMBER 3RD, 2023.
Written by: Leo Brady