Swimming biopic Nyad is a film constantly at odds with itself. The subject of the film, Diana Nyad, is famous for, at the ripe “old” age of 64, successfully swimming from Cuba to Florida, an arduous trek of more than 100 miles. While the absurd physical and emotional toll of this challenge is depicted quite successfully, the film brushes over the reality that many in the swim community refute Nyad’s accomplishment. The depiction of Nyad by Annette Bening in the film is a bit bitter, preachy, and hard to connect with. Far from the witty, charismatic Nyad seen in archival footage sprinkled throughout, almost like a rebuttal against itself.
And yet, Nyad is still quite a powerful look at the obsession that burns within the heart of a champion. Nyad is single-minded and focused on her goal, which makes her tough and hard-to-love for the people around her. She talks at people like a schoolteacher handing out pop quizzes, her mind perpetually focused on her next achievement. But one thing the film does well is establish that one has to be that way. The swim Nyad attempted would require her to be alone in the water for days on end, facing dangerous aquatic life, pissing and crapping in her wet suit, being fed liquid food from the end of a line. Why would anyone ever want to do this thing, anyway?
The film doesn’t get at that answer. Not really. We see flashbacks to Nyad’s abusive childhood. That doesn’t really work to make us understand her any better. A clearer picture develops when its suggested that Nyad will fail because she’s a woman, and an old one at that. The suggestion fires her up to quiet the critics once and for all. That’s a story we can get behind. Nyad takes off when we have a reason to back her passionate drive. Even after multiple failed attempts drive Nyad to the brink of despair, we don’t want her to ever give up.
Less interesting are the various relationships in Nyad’s life that don’t stand a chance of competing against her one true passion. Jodie Foster has little to do as Bonnie, her best friend, coach, and former lover. She’s the one who tries to guide her friend through the worst of it; absorbing Nyad’s abuses, humoring her, uplifting her, and being there for her when she fails. Casting Foster gives the character a certain kind of lived-in experience, but it also doesn’t ask Foster to do much but be there by Bening’s side. Both actresses are good, and so is Rhys Ifans as sea captain and navigator John Bartlett, who meticulously plotted the course through the Florida Straits, watching the weather patterns and managing Nyad’s sizable ego.
Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have put together a handsome, well-made biopic with few visual flourishes. That changes somewhat in the final stretch, as Nyad swims among a sea of glowing, neon-colored jellyfish. Their beauty hides their dangerous potential, seen moments later when Nyad nearly dies from the encounter. One of the things the film does really well is capture how much really goes into the “Everest of Swims”. While Nyad might be alone in the water, it takes an entire team to get her through to the finish. That includes someone who designs an experimental wet suit to repel…well, jellyfish.
Vasarhelyi and Chin previously directed the stirring Oscar-winning doc, Free Solo, which tells a similarly daring tale about the conquering of a rock climb without protective equipment. Nyad doesn’t capture the same death-defying quality, but the extensive swimming sequences are far from dull. The use of timers, maps, and the intense physical wear to Nyad’s body all drive the point home that this is a uniquely rare accomplishment. On dry land, the Hollywood drama of Diana Nyad’s story feels customary in the way awards season prestige dramas too often do. When Nyad takes to the water, it’s a captivating underdog story about a woman who swam against the tide of prejudice and ageism to be the best.
Nyad streams on Netflix beginning November 3rd.