Film Review: Nyad
Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasahelyi, Jimmy Chin
Black Bear Pictures and Mad Chance Productions
In Theaters: 10.20
“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” is the mantra of everyone’s favorite Blue Tang, Dory, from 2003’s Finding Nemo. That philosophy is exemplified, both literally and figuratively, in the inspiring, exciting and true story of Nyad.
In the late 2000s, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening, American Beauty, The American President) had left the world of marathon swimming three decades ago to focus on a career in sports journalism. Diana accomplished almost everything that a swimmer could, though her failure to complete a record-setting 110 mile–swim from Havana to Key West, Florida in 1978 still gnaws at her, and at age 60, she decides to dive into the deep end once again. Diana begins a four-year odyssey of training, procuring sponsors, and preparing to make history. Diana’s former girlfriend, now best friend and coach, Bonnie Stoll (two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, The Accused, The Silence of the Lambs) is by her side every step of the way, and the two make the bold choice to make the swim without the safety of a shark cage. This daunting challenge pushes the endurance limits of both women, as well as their friendship, as they navigate through rough waters and face intense challenges head-on. Diana fights against the current—and her considerable personal demons—to make the point to herself and to the world that one is never too old to achieve their dreams.
Nyad ranks among the best sports movies since the original Rocky in 1976, and it fairs even better as an adventure film. The ocean sequences are exhilarating in a way that made me think of grand classics such as Apollo 13, and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) paints a beautiful picture. Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Vasahelyi and Chin (Free Solo) make their narrative feature debut in this stunningly immersive film.
Nyad plays as a documentary/narrative hybrid in many respects, making extensive use of interviews and archival footage. The directing duo wisely chooses to keep enough separation in style between the two that there’s no confusion that this is ultimately a fact-based drama, yet the documentary element wonderfully puts the awesome scope of Nyad’s career into focus. The human drama is still kept to the main storyline as portrayed by the actors, and while it’s mildly distracting to switch from the real Diana Nyad representing the character in her younger days to Benning playing her in the bulk of the story, it’s no more distracting than it would be seeing flashbacks featuring another actor in the role.
Benning has never been better, digging deep to embody this extraordinary woman and bringing not only a strong physicality but an emotional depth that puts this performance among the best work of her career. This is a character who is strong and brave, yet also stubborn and self-centered, and Benning doesn’t try to smooth out the rough edges, instead letting us love and admire Diana without always knowing if we like her very much. Diana Nyad is a survivor of sexual abuse, and Benning’s portrayal of the lingering trauma that this woman has carried with her since her mid-teens is heartbreaking. Foster’s so-called supporting role is really a co-leading one, and as the unflappable Bonnie she commands the screen in a way that we haven’t seen from her in over 20 years. Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, The Amazing Spider-Man) is marvelous as John Bartlett, the cynical navigator whom Bonnie hires to make sure they get from point A to point B. If nothing else about Nyad worked, these three performances would still be enough to make it worth seeing multiple times.
Nyad is more than one of the best films of 2023; it achieves instant classic status and earns a place on my all-time favorites list. The fact that Netflix will put money into getting films like this one made keeps me loyal to them as a studio, though I highly recommend seeing this one on the big screen. –Patrick Gibbs