Diana Nyad was a swimming legend, a stellar athlete in the 1970s who achieved the heights of her sport, and then went on to a successful decades-long career in the broadcast booth for ABC Sports, ESPN, and elsewhere.
The new movie Nyad is not about any of that. In this regard, the film, a first narrative effort from Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo, The Rescue), has something in common with Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, which premiered today in Venice. Neither movie is a traditional biopic about their title subject, but rather a movie with a singular focus that digs much deeper into the weeds to discover what drove them and made them who they were.
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For a film revolving around an athlete, making this the story of a champion who starts all over at age 60 is decidedly an un-Hollywood-like thing to do. The fact that it is a woman who last swam competitively 30 years earlier and is now at retirement age is not the stuff studio mogul’s box office dreams are made of. But kudos to Netflix for getting behind a senior Rocky-ish waterlogged story with a stubborn protagonist who can be hard to warm up to much of the two- hour running time. An Esther Williams MGM musical this is not.
Julia Cox’s solid screenplay, based on Nyad’s own book, Find A Way, begins basically in 2010. Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) is far, far away from the trained athlete that made her great in the pool a half century ago. Now, she is still friends with her longtime coach, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), and they are spending their days playing Scrabble. Until at a surprise 60th birthday party Stoll throws for her, Nyad expresses the one dream still gnawing at her.
Despite all her earlier career triumphs, she failed in 1978 in her attempt to do the swimmer’s version of the 24 Hours Of Le Mans: swimming the 110- mile ocean trek from Cuba to Florida’s Key West without a sharks cage. It would take a superhuman effort, and Nyad just didn’t make it.
So, all those medals and trophies and acclaim aside, this was the main thing she could think about, and now, at 60, she convinced Bonnie to join with her in finally pulling it off. At first very reluctant, Bonnie signs on, and the agonizing training began, all leading to Cuba and her well-publicized send-off to actually cross this one off her bucket list and make history.
Of course, they would need a boat and a captain who would even entertain the idea. They found him in a highly skeptical and salty John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) who eventually succumbed to Nyad’s “charms.” Soon, she was in the water. But what was to be a triumph failed miserably, sea creatures and jelly fish destroying the dream along the way.
The story here for those like me who don’t have a clear memory of the rest of it is explained by the sheer determination of Nyad to keep trying, even after getting beaten up badly by Mother Nature in that ocean. So, there are actually three more attempts, Stoll, at one point during those years, threw in the towel herself, and Vasarhelyi and Chin built up the suspense and increased our dislike of Nyad for pushing all these people in such a self-centered way that you kind of just want her to go back and keep playing scrabble instead of this Quixotic quest that could kill her.
SPOILER ALERT: Today, September 2, marks the 10th anniversary of Nyad’s fifth, final, and ultimately victorious attempt, as she swam into Key West, dream accomplished, in 2013 .
The filmmakers, no stranger to superhuman quests in the kinds of films they have made, are the perfect choice for this story. And right from the beginning, not just the end credits, they liberally use actual documentary footage of the younger Nyad to quickly introduce us to the way she was before 2010 and Benning takes over. They make no attempt to CGI de-age their star and stick her head on Nyad’s body, they just use the real footage, knowing that’s not the story they are telling. Fortunately for them, they have Bening, who herself went into rigorous training and is age-appropriate, but wholly convincing out of — and crucially — in the water.
This is an astonishing, determined portrayal, as remarkable in its own way as Nyad’s unflinching effort. Bening continues to reach new heights in her long and impressive career, and this one ranks near the top. She is matched by Foster, really nailing Stoll’s energy, frustration, and friendship, and along the way delivering her best screen work in years, a reminder of this star’s true grit and timeless talent. And equally impressive in his own way is Ifans, who flat-out gives the performance of his career as Bartlett, the boat captain who became so crucial to Nyad’s ultimate triumph.
A big shout out to Claudio Miranda’s expert cinematography, as well as Pete Zuccarini, who handled the underwater work. Alexandre Desplat supplied another lovely musical score, and the songs, including Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart and Roy Orbison’s Crying, add much, as music was a key to Nyad’s ability to achieve success.
Producers are Andrew Lazar and Teddy Schwarzman. Their own long-gestating attempt to bring this very singular story to the screen, along with the filmmakers, Bening, Foster, and Ifans, have – to paraphrase the title of Nyad’s book – found a way to make it all work swimmingly.
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Release date: October 20, 2023 in theatres; November 3 streaming
Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Screenplay: Julia Cox
Cast: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans, Ethan Jones Romero, Luke Cosgrove, Jeena Yi, Eric T. Miller
Running time: 2 hr 1 min
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