Nyad (2023, dirs. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)

by | Nov 3, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 120 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 3 November 2023

WHO’S IN NYAD?

Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans, Karly Rothenberg, Jeena Yi

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi (directors), Julia Cox (writer), Andrew Lazar and Teddy Schwarzman (producers), Alexandre Desplat (composer), Claudio Miranda (cinematographer), Christopher Tellefsen (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

At the age of 60, former swim athlete Diana Nyad (Bening) sets her sights on an impossible new feat…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON NYAD?

Beyond being yet another sports biopic, Nyad is also the metaphorical marriage of two women with very different goals and even more different outcomes, but no less determination from either one of them. On one end, you have the titular swimmer Diana Nyad who, in 2013, realised a dream that took her more than thirty years to complete, but in that time she never gave up on her ambitions, and literally pushed herself across a continent towards her target. Then, on the other side, there’s Annette Bening, the actor who, prior to playing Nyad in the narrative feature debut of filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, has scored four Oscar nominations across her career – for her performances in The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia and The Kids Are All Right – and although she has yet to win, her commitment to pretty much every part she plays remains strong, even when that elusive golden statuette stays out of reach.

It is the robust dedication by both Nyad and Bening that is most celebrated here, in an endearing and very well-made film that does well to encapsulate the spirit of its rather incredible real-life story of human endurance, as well as its compelling central figure.

The film begins in 2010, when Bening’s Nyad – a former professional swimmer who back in 1979 made an aborted attempt at a 100+ mile swim from Cuba to Florida – reaches her sixties, alongside her best friend and closest confidante Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). After reading an existential poem by Mary Oliver, Nyad is inspired to have another go at that Cuba-Florida swim, which to date nobody has accomplished, let alone a middle-aged former swimmer like her. With Bonnie as her reluctant coach, Nyad resumes her training and recruits a team of specialists, including world-weary chief navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), to assist her during the ambitious trek, but she and her crew must overcome a series of challenges – ranging from the ever-changing weather, to avoiding numerous deadly poisonous jellyfish and even sharks, to even Nyad’s exhausting ego – in order for the dream to become a reality.

While the film’s script, as written by Julia Cox, follows a similar pattern that you’d expect a sports biopic like this to stick with, its conventional traps are largely overcome by Chin and Vasarhelyi’s vibrant execution, which takes the familiar components and breaths plenty of new life into them. The filmmakers, who won an Oscar for their thrilling documentary Free Solo, blend both the dramatized scenes and archive footage of the real Nyad’s accomplishments together into a docu-drama structure that works for this particular story, as you’re constantly learning more about this person as the film goes along without it feeling like an overload of information. Furthermore, they are able to lend the film a formidable pace that wastes little time on unimportant aspects of Nyad’s journey, with Christopher Tellefsen’s smooth editing rarely lagging, and especially Claudio Miranda’s crisp cinematography lending some gorgeous ocean imagery that always holds your attention.

Then, there’s the additional benefit of having someone like Annette Bening play this challenging lead role, which the actor more than puts in the effort for. Bening is a force of nature in this movie, matched only by Jodie Foster who puts in an equally great turn as Nyad’s long-suffering friend/coach Bonnie, with their sparkling chemistry making for some of the film’s most human moments. Both actors refuse to box their characters into the typical athlete-coach relationship that often dominates sports movies like this, and they make them feel more like well-rounded people with their fair share of strengths and flaws, such as Nyad’s confidence often floating towards egotism, as well as Bonnie’s selflessness that she feels is constantly being taken for granted. They are more than enough reason to watch this movie, as their performances rank among some of their finest in years (and the same can be said about Rhys Ifans, who puts in some strong work in a smaller supporting role).

Nyad is filled with plenty of that feel-good factor that makes a film like this irresistible, despite some of its conventional practises and even one or two underdeveloped areas, such as flashbacks to the subject’s childhood when her relationship with her coach takes a disturbing turn. It could certainly be seen as manipulative, and maybe even as blatant Oscar bait, but whatever tricks it pulls are ones that work, since it’s a good story that’s told well by filmmakers who are clearly dedicated – almost as much as both Nyad and Bening – to making it come across as well as they possibly can.

It’s to the credit of everyone’s fierce determination that Nyad is, like its subject, a plentiful winner.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Nyad is a winning sports docu-drama that tells its captivating story with the prowess and determination to match its main subject Diana Nyad, whom Annette Bening excellently portrays alongside Jodie Foster in a pair of performances that make the film more than worth watching.

Four of of five stars

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