Banner image: Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD. Cr. Liz Parkinson/Netflix ©2023
Throughout the 1970s, the world thought marathon swimmer Diana Nyad was at the height of her powers. By age 30, she’d set several records worldwide – including the longest ocean swim in history at that time (102 miles) – before leaving swimming behind for a career in sportscasting. But little did spectators know that they’d have to wait over three decades to see what this athlete was really made of.
When she was 28, Nyad attempted a Cuba-to-Florida crossing, which involved paddling 110 miles across the unpredictable, shark-infested Florida Strait. She swam with a cage around her to protect her from the carnivorous ocean-dwellers but was forced to admit defeat when the conditions became too rough.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s new film picks up more than 30 years later on the eve of the swimmer’s 60th birthday. We’re introduced to a somewhat discontent Diana (Annette Bening) who, after lamenting the lack of excellence in the world around her, decides to head back to Cuba to finish what she started – this time, without a shark cage.
But she’s not going alone. Along for the ride is her longtime best friend and former racquetball champion, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), who agrees to act as her coach. It’s this committed friendship that the filmmakers quite ingeniously choose to serve as the anchor for the film.
The two leading women give outstanding performances. It’s interesting to watch the interplay between Stoll’s loyal, level-headed generosity and Nyad’s dogged but somewhat destructive single-mindedness. Nyad’s tunnel vision-like focus makes it tricky for people to be around her, and the most meaningful tension of the film doesn’t lie in whether or not she’ll reach Florida but whether her friend will be by her side when she does.
One of the film’s strengths is certainly the way it deals with Nyad’s abrasive personality. The filmmakers certainly don’t pull their punches when showcasing the complexities of Nyad’s character. And it’s in these moments when Foster’s Stoll shines – offering a patient and compassionate flipside to her friend’s bulldozing determination. Unlike many other films about high performers, we genuinely get the sense that Nyad couldn’t have achieved what she did without her companion.
Nyad is Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s first narrative film. The husband and wife documentary team won an Academy Award back in 2019 for the climbing documentary Free Solo, so they know a thing or two about chronicling the exploits of exceptional people. Their documentary pedigree is clear throughout – sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.
Much of the two hours takes place at sea, with Nyad in the water and her team in the boat. These action scenes are certainly the flick’s most memorable, particularly one chaotic night when Diana is stung by a box jellyfish – with the camera dipping beneath the waves and rising back up again like the lolling head of a helpless swimmer. It’s an immersive sequence but also gives the impression that some intrepid documentarian is struggling alongside her.
Vasarhelyi and Chin also make heavy use of archival footage, which is often effective. At times, the words of a much younger, real-life Nyad seem to taunt Bening’s character, while at others, they appear to spur her on. It’s a clever (if a little heavy-handed) device that reminds us who she’s really competing against.
Visually, Nyad is a surprisingly ambitious film. But this punt doesn’t always pay off. Combining an eclectic mix of sweeping drone shots, underwater cinematography, flashbacks with heavy filters, and other techniques, it struggles to find a consistent, cohesive style. And some viewers might find the abrupt pivots a little distracting – particularly when it comes to some of the less-than-perfect CGI sequences.
At times, the writing can also feel a little clunky – there are a few moments when lines of exposition are shoehorned in and nuances clumsily spelt out for us. One moment comes to mind when Bonnie hears a poem playing on the radio that Diana read to her earlier in the film. Instead of letting the audience make the connection themselves, Bonnie exclaims the author’s name and shakes her head as if to say, “Look here, viewers. Remember this?”
But it’s easy to forgive the film’s lack of subtly, as the story of Diana Nyad is anything but. It’s an inspiring tale about courage, tenacity, and the boundless strength we can draw from one another. Nyad offers a fresh, new element (and welcome relief) to the vast pantheon of sports films, focusing on LGBTQ+ characters and showcasing the limitless possibilities of later life. For its flaws, it’s a very moving watch, and its two veteran stars are as good as ever.
Nyad is currently available on Netflix.
Are you planning to watch Nyad? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.