Known for crafting edge-of-your-seat documentaries (Free Solo, The Rescue), Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin venture into uncharted territory with their first narrative feature, NYAD. While this style of filmmaking may be new to the directing duo, the subject matter is a natural fit. Not only do Chin and Vasarhelyi have a knack for documenting leading subjects who push themselves to their limits, but they’re also drawn to characters who are somewhat prickly, with athletic achievements and motivations so extreme that they must be explored further. The driven yet highly controversial marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64, is no exception.
NYAD opens with archival footage of Diana Nyad as a marathon swimmer in her twenties. She’s a force, breaking distance records, completing a swim around Manhattan, and attempting a 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. This footage shows Diana’s journey into the world of marathon swimming, but it’s also one of the earliest moments in the film where it feels like Chin and Vasaerhelyi can’t quite get away from their tried and true tricks from their documentaries as the opening sequence orients the viewer to Diana’s litany of achievements. Still, the film continues to lean on this footage as a crutch throughout its runtime, often halting the movement of the narrative. The film jumps to 2009 when Diana (Annette Bening) celebrates her 60th birthday. From the moment the audience sees Bening, it’s clear that she is without vanity in the part, committed to illustrating Diana’s particular brand of egotism and abrasiveness. She’s a spiky character balanced out by her friend turned coach, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). There’s something about turning 60 that causes Diana to realize that she only has one life to live and return to the water for the first time in thirty years.
Annette Bening is fierce as Diana, once again proving she is one of the greatest living actresses. She’s unafraid to display Nyad’s self-centeredness and difficulty as a person while also physically transforming into a completely convincing marathon swimmer. As Diana gets back in shape, she recruits Bonnie as her coach and shares that she will attempt to complete the one swim that evaded her thirty years earlier: swimming from Cuba to Florida. While Diana is laser-focused to a fault, Bonnie is completely selfless, ensuring that the logistics of the impossible swim are handled for her friend (always with a Diet Coke in hand). Bonnie gives up her life as she knows it for Diana, learning how to manage a boat crew, feeding her noodles during her swim, and even remortgaging her house to pay for each subsequent swim. Bonnie is underwritten, but Foster makes the most of the role, turning in one of the best performances in her storied career. Foster is the heart of NYAD as she discovers and embodies the warmth, athleticism, and humor of Bonnie.
Bonnie and Diana know that all odds are against them, so they recruit a top-tier team of experts, including their navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), shark technology expert Luke Tipple (Luke Cosgrove), captain Dee Brady (Karly Rothenberg), and box jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara (Jeena Yi). Even though she’s in her sixties now, she “doesn’t want an asterisk” by the record when she achieves it. For example, she stubbornly won’t have a shark cage and must resort to new technology. Chin and Vasarhelyi, cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Top Gun: Maverick), and editor Christopher Tellefsen (Moneyball) captivate the audience with the difficulty and potential horror surrounding this 110-mile swim. In painstaking detail, they illustrate just how demanding this swim is, chronicling the challenges of the four attempts throughout Diana’s sixties. While the pacing of each of the attempts is uneven, the suspense in these sequences is quite engaging and reminiscent of the best moments in Chin and Vasarhelyi’s documentaries.
While it’s easy to get swept up in the grueling nature of the long-distance swim, the script, unfortunately, tries to tackle too much. Based on Nyad’s memoir, Find A Way, Katie Cox’s script barely scratches the surface of the controversial character that is Diana Nyad. Smartly, the film incorporates details that add color (and comedy) to Diana’s experience while she’s in the water, including a playlist of songs that she sings to herself in her head as she swims and the depicted hallucinations she experiences while running on fumes. The film also includes flashbacks from Diana’s childhood, including the pressure that her father put on her to carry the Nyad name (the script reminds the viewer several times that “nyad” means “water nymph” in Greek) and a traumatizing relationship with her former swim coach, Jack Nelson. Sexual assault is implied and confirmed when Bonnie and Diana discuss Nelson’s death. The film suggests that the assault still affects Diana years later but doesn’t give it the necessary space that it needs in the narrative. Despite the multiple flashbacks, Diana’s motivations for this colossal achievement feel thin. When a character goes after a goal as intense as Diana’s, there must be some root to that commitment.
The filmmakers seem much more interested in Nyad’s steadfast, relentless commitment to accomplishing her goal without even touching on the plethora of controversies crucial to understanding this real-life woman’s reputation. It’s a frustrating aspect that often plagues biopics where the subject is still living (and attached to the project), and NYAD falls squarely into this trap. The Diana Nyad of NYAD is a determined athlete who could ruffle some feathers, not someone the entire swimming community would believably be skeptical of. By not incorporating any hints of the doubts about Nyad’s credibility (allegations of cheating still persist), the film is far less provocative than it could be, failing to paint a complete picture of its subject.
Even though the film isn’t the complete story of this time in Diana Nyad’s life, it’s impossible not to be moved when she finally reaches the shores of Key West. After all, swimming for over fifty hours straight over the age of sixty is a herculean accomplishment that will inspire many viewers to go forward and accomplish the goals they’ve considered impossible. While, at times, NYAD sinks under the weight of its clunky script, the solid performances from Bening and Foster make the film worth visiting.
This review is from the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. NYAD will be released in select theaters this October and on Netflix November 3.
Photo: Liz Parkinson/Netflix