‘Nyad’ Movie Review

Not all great athletes are great competitors, and not all great competitors are great athletes. But when the two merge, the result is elite. Think Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Novak Djokovic, Tiger Woods, and Michael Phelps. Of course, there are others, and this biopic focuses on one you might not have previously considered since she’s so unique. Diana Nyad was a world-class distance swimmer and had a tremendous career prior to becoming an analyst and commentator for ABC Sports. She had a career that made her famous in her field and a well-respected sports personality. But that’s not what made her the focus of this film from co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the Oscar-winning duo behind the extraordinary documentary Free Solo (2018).

In 2010, after a surprise 60th birthday party thrown for her by her friend Bonnie Stoll, Diana Nyad made up her mind to make the “Mount Everest” of open water swims, from Cuba to Florida. Mind you, Nyad had failed on her attempt at this swim when she was 28 years old and in peak form. And yes, everyone thought she was a bit crazy and tried to talk her out of it. The swim is 103 miles, and the dangers included box jellyfish, sharks, and unpredictable weather and currents, not to mention the stamina and physical health required. But Diana would not be swayed from her goal.

Annette Bening stars as Nyad, and two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster co-stars as best friend Bonnie. As remarkable as Nyad’s marathon swim goal was, much of the film focuses on the journey of friendship between Diana and Bonnie, especially once Bonnie takes on the role of coach and trainer. Their relationship (and the actors’ performances) is the strength of the film. We feel the love and the frustrations. Diana’s extreme level of determination (and hard-headedness) is paired with her equally extreme level of self-absorption and narcissism. Bonnie’s loyalty is tested daily and over many years.

Why many years? The answer to that is in the number of failures Nyad experiences on her quest to complete the swim. The multiple attempts allow us to get familiar with the crew, especially navigator John Bartlett, played by the always-interesting Rhys Ifans. The relationship between the crew and the swimmer builds the bridge between isolation and team sport. We see Diana use 4/4 music for the rhythm of her strokes and to keep her mind from wandering (or worse). The mental aspect of distance swimming is just as challenging as the physical side.

The story continues through 2013 at age 64, when we learn that the rules mean both ankles must be out of the water for the swim to count, this after more than two full days and nights of swimming. Screenwriter Julia Cox has adapted the story from Diana Nyad’s memoir, Find a Way, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) works wonders in capturing the enormity of the swim as well as the intimacy of this deep friendship and the commitment of the crew. Flashbacks of Diana’s childhood are shown, which clue us in on what motivated her to push her body and mind to extremes.

The film begins with a recap of Nyad’s swimming career to ensure that viewers understand what a decorated athlete she was. Annette Bening is terrific here and it will be interesting to see if, after four previous nominations, this is the role that delivers that elusive gold statue. As for Jodie Foster, her rare screen appearances make it too easy to forget just how amazing she can be – it’s nice to be reminded (be on the lookout for her in the new season of True Detective next year). Music by two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat works well on the swims, and Nyad’s dreams (and misses) inspire us to pursue our own; even if our dreams are a bit less dramatic than “Mount Everest.”