A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2023

NYAD jjj

2023, R, 120 mins.

Annette Bening as Diana Nyad  /  Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll  /  Rhys Ifans as John Bartlett  /  Luke Cosgrove as Luke Tipple  /  Karly Rothenberg as Dee  /  Jeena Yi as Angel Yanigahara  /  Anna Harriette Pittman as Teenage Diana  /  Eric T. Miller as Coach Jack Nelson  /  Garland Scott as Jon Rose  /  Johnny Solo as Aris Nyad  /  

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin  /  Written by Julia Cox, based on the book by Diana Nyad





Netflix's new biographical sports drama NYAD is based on the unbelievable true story of Diana Nyad, who became a media sensation in the 1970s for her Herculean feats of swimming around Manhattan island (28 miles!) in record time and - even more impressively - swimming from The Bahamas to Florida (an astounding 102 miles).  NYAD doesn't focus on those gargantuan achievements of endurance swimming, but rather on her well publicized efforts to swim from Cuba to Key West (which she attempted before in 1978, but failed)...and at the ripe age of 64.   


That's a six with a four at the end.  

I know.  That's mind-blowing.  

NYAD marks the feature filmmaking debuts of married documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who previously made a critical splash (no pun intended) for winning an Oscar for their rock climbing doc FREE SOLO.  Using Nyad's own autobiography FIND A WAY as inspiration, the directing duo seem to be at ease with attempting another film (albeit of the dramatic variety) about unfathomable mental and physical feats, and Nyad's story, no doubt, has the makings of an easy and rousing crowd pleasure sports picture.  

That, and NYAD does a very good job of evoking the hellish rigors that Nyad went through - and at an age when most people call it a day and retire from their lifelong jobs - in order to achieve what was once deemed impossible for her much younger self in the past.  This is by no means a spotless genre effort.  It certainly follows an obligatory line as far as these types of pictures go, not to mention that it strangely glosses over some of the well-known controversies that surrounded Nyad's final attempt at swimming from Cuba to Florida (more on that in a bit). Still, the film is endlessly involving, sometimes visually rich, and includes two dynamite performances by two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster and four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (in the titular role) that helps keep everything (ahem!) afloat.

I appreciate how the film opens with footage of the real Diana Nyad in the 1970s as she makes one media appearance after another (with one memorable one on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) detailing her endurance swimming feats.  Her failed attempt at swimming from Cuba to Florida, though, in '78 haunted her for the decades to come, which segues into introducing us to this film's version of Diana (Bening), who's now in her sixties, but still laments about what could have been all those decades ago.  She then drops a bombshell on her friends: she wants to train and give the long-distance swim another go.  Predictably, most think she's nuttier than a fruit cake, especially her long-time friend and coach in Bonnie (Foster), who very quickly reminds her that she was 28 when her last failed attempt was made.  But Diana is a real stubborn one and refuses to let her advancing years convince her to forget about it.  Very slowly, but surely, the film navigates viewers through the inordinately grueling training that she must commit herself to in order to get back into 1970s shape.  She manages to convince the ever doubting Bonnie to be her overseer and trainer and even hires a navigator, John (Rhys Ifans), who's a much needed component to ensure that she has a fighting chance in aquatic conditions that could go from good to bad in minutes.  Attempting to erase her greatest athletic failure from the history books, Diana is ferociously determined, but her first multiple attempts end in failure...that is until her final kick at the can in 2013.  



One of the cornerstones of NYAD is the central lifelong bond between Diana and Bonnie, with the latter being a constant source of support for her BFF through relative thick and thin in their lives.  Both care deeply for one another, but Bonnie arguably has the more troubling emotional arc in NYAD, considering that she has to - as a friend and coach - be the pragmatic voice of reason with Diana when it comes to making sound judgment calls in relation to her health and well being.  This, for obvious reasons, causes great friction between the pair, which is stemmed mostly from Diana's oftentimes insufferable personality and selfish willingness to throw absolute caution to the wind.  It's awfully hard to blame Bonnie's intense level of apprehension, though.  After all, her buddy is - yes - pushing mid-sixties and is attempting sometime that could kill anyone (regardless of age) unless properly monitored.  Vasarhelyi and Chin make Nyad's many crossing attempts so visually vivid.  Not only is the unpredictability of the water currents a constant source of potential danger, but then there are countless other hostile elements, like sharks and jellyfish added to the equation.  Oh, and let's not forget about pure exhaustion.  That's the big elephant in the room here.  There are many epically staged shots that show how unforgivably vast the ocean is, which is harrowing in its own right.  The sixtysomething Nyad was either one of the bravest women in sports history...or the craziest...or both.

For as superb as NYAD is when it comes to showing the tortuous extremes that this woman went through to achieve her dream, the film - as already mentioned - also exists as a wonderful showcase reel for the supreme talents of industry vets like Foster and Bening, and witnessing these seasoned props so effortless immerse themselves into their respective characters (and while fostering such natural chemistry on screen) is one of the unique pleasures of NYAD.  Bening wisely understands that she cannot make Diana an easily likeable figure of pure sports hero worship.  She evokes her can-do spirit and unwavering bravery, to be sure, but Diana is also presented here as a somewhat tortured woman that's unhealthily tormented by past failure.  On top of that, she has an ego the size of the ocean, which sometimes makes her beyond unpleasant to be around.  Counterbalancing Bening's layered take is Foster's cool and calculating performance as Bonnie.  She's less of a wound-up firecracker as far as personalities go, but rather is a warm-hearted and understanding confidant to Diana who's also not afraid to call her friend out when needed.  It's such a sincere joy to see two of the most acclaimed actresses of all time - and in their twilight years - being given great parts to sink their teeth into and go beyond my expectations in the process. 

But here's the thing, though: NYAD barely flirts with some of the more dicey aspects of her story.  Clearly, as a work of drama, this film needs a certain amount of dramatic license, but the makers here never cover the controversy surrounding her greatest swimming triumph.  When she crossed Cuba to Florida, it was reported to be in accordance with rules and regulations set forth by the Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association that...well...didn't technically exist at the time of her achievement.  Then there were crucial observer logs for her swim that were curiously incomplete (nine hours worth of documentation never occurred).  Adding in conflicting accounts of the crew during the event and what we were left with at the time was an achievement that has never been formally acknowledged (even the Guinness Book of World Records revoked Nyad's 2013 achievement due to a lack of details and incomplete records).  Then there has been talk over the years about Nyad's lack of honesty with the press regarding her pursuits and achievements.  It's pretty disheartening to watch NYAD and have none of this really brought to the surface for audience members to take in and process.

Some other things don't go well in the film either, like how the sexual assault that Diana experienced at the hands of her stepfather when she was a younger athlete in training is sprinkled awkwardly into the narrative via clunky flashbacks (this definitely needs to be brought to the forefront in this story, but it's simply not given enough meaty screentime to make a lasting and important impact in defining Diana as an adult).  On top of that, NYAD follows the ready-made blueprint of inspirational underdog sports stories, so much so that I kind of wished that Vasarhelyi and Chin brought something fresh to a very stuffed and relatively stale genre.  That's not to diminish what Nyad attempted in her 60s.  Not at all.  This film a piece of easy-going comfort food showing the triumph of the human mind and body over profound adversity...and it rarely has ambitions to elevate itself above that.  The film could have, as mentioned, been that much better if it didn't try to turn a blind eye to many of the thorny questions that surrounded Nyad's achievement.  Having said that, I enjoyed NYAD and I'm inclined to give it a modest recommendation based mostly on the pure conviction that Bening and Foster bring to their characters.  NYAD may feel underwritten and is too reticent to seriously challenge its subject matter, but its powerfully acted and the story behind it (even with its many historical asterisks that are not footnoted at all) is pretty extraordinary.   

I mean...she was 64.  

Like...wow.  Let that really settle in..

  H O M E