NYAD is now streaming on Netflix.
In 1978, Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, when she was just 28 years old. About 42 hours into the swim, doctors removed her from the water due to strong winds pushing her off course, making the trek nearly impossible. Over 30 years later, Nyad’s unfinished business led her to attempt the swim again at over 60 years of age. The story is ripe for an awards-season biopic with a few buzzy performances to round it out.
In ‘NYAD,’ four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening takes on the role of Diana Nyad as she attempts her 110-mile marathon swim from Cuba to Florida, otherwise known as the “Mount Everest” of swims. Two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster plays Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s best friend and coach, who has the unenviable task of working with Nyad’s headstrong and bristly attitude.
When you see the talent involved, it’s no surprise that the performances in the movie are great.
Bening portrays Nyad’s real-life determination in a way that can be overly brash but simultaneously admirable. Nyad could be facing imminent death by jellyfish, and there’s no way she will let anyone pull her from the water. Her performance is also extremely physical, with a majority of the film spent in the water – it’s the kind of performance that’s like catnip to Academy voters. While Bening is excellent, Foster is the heart of the movie as Bonnie Stoll. There are large portions of the movie where Nyad is in the water, and these moments become Foster’s time to shine. Her patience, poise, and tolerance of Nyad’s personality make up the backbone of the movie, and their friendship is what the audience can really attempt to get invested in.
The directors, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin come from a documentary filmmaking background, most known for films like ‘Free Solo’ (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature) and ‘The Rescue’. Their experience in the world of documentaries lends itself well to ‘NYAD,’ which is their narrative film debut. The story is intercut with real-life interviews and archive footage of Diana Nyad, which actually manages to fit somewhat seamlessly into the story. But it also raises the question of why this couldn’t have just been a documentary in the first place. The performances and recreations are well done, but it would be just as appealing to view a full feature of Nyad’s accomplishments.
There are some moments during the story where the tone suddenly shifts.
Nyad starts screaming, and horror elements take hold when she swims into a group of man o’ war jellyfish. We get dreamlike illusions when Nyad reaches a delusional state late into one of her swims. In some of Nyad’s most difficult moments, we get flashbacks to the trauma she experienced in her youth. These moments don’t take away from the performances, but they also seem like cliche requirements that we have come to expect from these types of biopics.
Those familiar with Diana Nyad’s real-life accomplishments likely won’t find anything that truly surprises them in ‘NYAD.’ The performances are admirable, and you can guarantee we will hear more about Bening and Foster as we get deeper into awards season. The directors’ transition from documentary filmmaking to narrative features ultimately works from a storytelling perspective. However, I still wonder what their documentary on this subject would have looked like.