Synopsis: The remarkable true story of athlete Diana Nyad, who, at 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.
Stars: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans, Karly Rothenberg
Director: Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I’ve been swimming since I was six months old. My parents signed me up for baby swim lessons at the YMCA near my house, and I’ve never looked back, eventually becoming the youngest person ever on the swim team at the Y. It’s strange for me to hear of people who don’t know how to swim or have a fear of the water because it’s all I’ve ever known; there’s a familiarity there and safety I feel whenever I dive in that, I think can only be present if you grew up being taught not to be afraid. I will say that over the years, watching all these shark and sea creature movies has made me take an extra peek into the abyss before leaping in, but I can’t imagine a life without being near a body of water.
Champion swimmer Diana Nyad also learned to love the water and became serious about swimming around the age of 13 in Fort Lauderdale. A star of her high school swim team, illness prevented her from training for the 1968 Olympics but led to her lifetime involvement with marathon swimming. With an uncanny ability to dissociate during these punishingly long swims through treacherous waters, Nyad broke records worldwide as she moved into adulthood. Still, there was one goal that continued to elude her.
Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin make their narrative debut with Nyad to crowd-pleasing, rousing results. Skillfully blending actual footage from long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s life, including her numerous attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West, with dramatized events featuring stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, it’s got some rookie flaws (mostly continuity editing and slight pacing issues) but exists chiefly as a glowing showcase for its leads.
Picking up in 2010 when Nyad was sixty, screenwriter Julia Cox adapts the swimmer’s autobiography documenting the agonizing training, planning, and execution of her incredible 110-mile swim. Recognizing that she wasn’t getting any younger and tired of seeing her body not being used for its intended purpose, Nyad wakes up one day and decides it’s time to take care of unfinished business. In 1978, she attempted to swim from Cuba to Key West but was stopped after being pushed off course by the current. Thirty-two years later, she was ready to try again.
With the assistance of longtime friend and trainer Bonnie Stoll (Foster, Carnage), salty boat captain John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans, The King’s Man), and a team of experts, Nyad spends the next three years getting in shape, doing test runs, failing, starting over, driving everyone around her crazy, but never giving up. There was a grit and fight that wouldn’t be satisfied until this goal was met, and even if it meant losing all that she had gained in the years since her first attempt in the late ‘70s, she would complete the record-setting swim.
Bening (Death on the Nile) trained for a year for her role, and her dedication, determination, and drive have paid off. If ever there was a time to give her that long overdue Academy Award…it’s for this. I want her to win an Oscar by golly, and by all accounts, she has nailed the unapologetically brusque Diana Nyad. And don’t count out Foster adding another trophy of her own to her shelf…what she’s doing here is supporting the star, yes, but also carving out a niche corner of her own for raising the bar for what a Supporting Actress can achieve. In a career dotted with goldstar performances, Foster again demonstrates why she’s so valued onscreen. And how about Ifans? Where did THAT sensitive performance come from? Often tasked with playing a slimy villain or snarky comic relief, Ifans is offered the chance to tug on some heartstrings, which he does with care.
Many will watch Nyad in the comfort of their homes when it premieres on Netflix in early November, but just like Chin and Vasarhelyi’s Oscar-winning Free Solo was best seen on the big screen, I’d suggest trying to find a theater that’s showing it near you. There are some incredible visuals from cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Top Gun: Maverick), often making you feel right in the punishing waters with Nyad as she completes her crossing. The sound design also has an immersive feel that helps you sink deeper into the story, characters, and mission everyone was on to support a focused dreamer surging through the water toward her destiny. As a sports biopic, it checks all the boxes without falling into staid formula; as a rah-rah celebration of achieved potential, it sets an example for us all to keep pushing…and have a friend by your side when you do.