Nyad review: A swim legend’s epic quest makes for a crowd-pleasing sports drama

Annette Bening and Jodie Foster are a dynamic on-screen pair as Diana Nyad and her coach/best friend, Bonnie Stoll

Nyad review: A swim legend’s epic quest makes for a crowd-pleasing sports drama
Nyad Photo: Kimberley French/Netflix

The beating heart of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s fiction feature debut, Nyad, lies in a Mary Oliver quote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” As well-worn and almost pat as Oliver’s poetry risks being in its simplicity and ubiquity, the query nags at Diana Nyad after stumbling on the famed poem that houses it. “The Summer Day” is an ode to the beauty of nature and the quiet power it can harness within us; in the words, Nyad finds a question she’s left unanswered for much too long. At 60, she’s not content to rest on her laurels: she wants adventure. She wants risk. She wants to attempt again the marathon swim from Cuba all the way to Key West, a feat she failed back when she was 28.

That’s what Nyad (a weary yet steely Annette Bening) wants to do with her one wild and precious life—even if it costs her that very same. As Nyad’s friend Bonnie (a sunny and warm Jodie Foster) tells her, the mere thought of it is insane. But Nyad, who struggles to make small talk at her own 60th birthday party, opting to tell everyone instead how “naiads” are water nymphs, her very name proof of the destiny in the water she’s meant to fulfill, is suddenly fixated. She’ll stop at nothing until she accomplishes this Herculean feat. But she’ll need Bonnie by her side, coaching and coaxing her the entire way. Nyad traces the yearslong quest to make that happen.

The premise may be simple and the outcome all but predictable (especially if you saw any news of Nyad back in September 2013) but that makes its story no less compelling. Especially because screenwriter Julia Cox (working off of Nyad’s autobiography, Find A Way) shapes the film as a portrait in dogged relentlessness. Sounding at times like a mix between a tenacious motivational speaker and a deluded athlete with a superiority complex (and maybe being a little bit of both), Bening’s Diana is so laser-focused on achieving her dream that she leaves herself no room for failure. Which is hard, as failure is what she must contend with the most: even as we see footage from her 1978 attempts, Nyad centers on the four tries she staged in the 2010s, each one seemingly more treacherous than the last, each one offering more difficult challenges she must overcome.

This is an uplifting sports drama, yes. But Cox mines Nyad’s prickliness for some much-needed friction: Nyad has no time for mediocrity and has no qualms calling out everyone for not wanting to be at her level. At times it’s inspiring; at others just outright disrespectful, and it’s a testament to Bening’s performance that such a tight walk feels authentic. It helps that she’s flanked by Foster’s Bonnie, a ray of no-nonsense sunshine wherever she goes. Armed with an enviable roster of bandanas and a megawatt smile that would charm anyone, Foster is a revelation as Bonnie. Bening may have the more physically exhausting role (which she tackles with aplomb, her body as hardened as her outlook) but it’s Foster who helps make this friendship between two aging lesbians feel so poignant.

The decades these two have spent together are there whether they’re playing Scrabble, feuding while one-upping each other at table tennis, or weathering horrid weather (or sharks, jellyfish, strong currents, and outright exhaustion) in the middle of the ocean. Every time it’s just the two of them in a room you wish you could bottle the chemistry these two venerated actresses bring to their roles, a feat all the more remarkable given how rare it is to find queer characters with such rich inner lives.

NYAD | Official Trailer | Netflix

Less successful is the film’s attempt to lace throughout Nyad’s sexual abuse as a teen at the hands of her swimming coach. Dredged up to the surface during Nyad’s ever-longer swimming attempts, these fragmented memories (alongside more acrimonious ones about her father) only come into focus late in the film. But Diana’s vocal disavowal of any kind of “victim” narrative (she wasn’t broken by the abuse, she insists to Bonnie) means Nyad has to offer those dark memories obliquely, at best.

In their first foray into fiction filmmaking Academy Award winners Vasarhelyi and Chin (Free Solo) bring a kinetic storytelling to Diana’s various tries at the 103-mile crossing. Making great use of their director of photography (Claudio Miranda, an Oscar winner for Life of Pi), the film easily swings from being a sun-dappled Caribbean-set interpersonal drama with wispy, wave-tinged flashbacks to a gripping ocean thriller (and later still to a daydreamy foray into Diana’s own hallucinatory visions toward the end of her journey). Vasarhelyi and Chin benefit from their nonfiction prowess at using various sources and interlocking points of view (Nyad’s past interviews, those flashbacks, hand-held footage from the boat, etc.) to keep what’s otherwise a rather stilted scenario (Diana swimming in place) afloat, visually speaking. If, at the end of the day, Nyad feels like a well-oiled crowd-pleasing sports drama with a heartwarming (if slightly insidious) message about never giving up, that doesn’t blunt its impact. We may not all have the stamina to accomplish anything remotely close to what Diana does but there’s something to be said about a film that uplifts the simple if poetic aspiration to make the most of one’s wild and precious life.

Nyad opens in select theaters October 20 and streams on Netflix starting November 3

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