Making its premiere at the prestigious Telluride & Toronto International Film Festivals, NYAD tells the remarkable story of world-class athlete Diana Nyad and her pursuit of marathon swimming immortality. The screenplay is based on Nyad’s book Find A Way and adapted for the screen by Julia Cox.
The film focuses on a riveting chapter in Nyad’s life three decades after giving up marathon swimming in exchange for a prominent career as a sports journalist. Now, at the age of 60, Diana becomes obsessed with completing an epic swim that has always eluded her: the 110-mile trek from Cuba to Florida, often referred to as the “Mount Everest” of swims. Determined to become the first person to finish the swim without a shark cage, Diana goes on a thrilling, four-year journey with her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll and a dedicated sailing team.
NYAD is the fictional feature film debut for the Oscar-winning documentary team of Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. No strangers to the pursuit of singular sports greatness, the duo won at the 2019 Academy Awards for their film Free Solo, which centered around Alex Honnold as he attempted to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park alone without a rope.
To match the impressive team behind the camera, the film also boasts a celebrated cast led by 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right) as the titular Diana Nyad, 2-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver) as longtime friend turned coach Bonnie Stoll, & BAFTA winner Rhys Ifans (House of the Dragon, Notting Hill) as sailing navigator John Bartlett.
While the structure of the story in the film borders on sports underdog cliche (not a knock as it has been a winning formula for quite some time), the performances, the on-the-water production values, and certain pivotal emotional scenes elevate the film above your standard straight-to-streaming/TV movie versions of similar tales. After a slow start that gives you a front-row seat to the polarizing, abrasive figure that Nyad can be, the film kicks into gear with all the trials & tribulations of trying to pull together something unnaturally great. You truly feel the difficulty of the feat itself as we bear witness to all the setbacks, the mental & physical anguish, and the brushes with death at the hands of Mother Nature.
Chin & Vasarhelyi’s expertise come to the forefront on the water as they capture the underwater sequences better than most. They particularly shine in a daunting storm scene that explodes off the screen (or at least it did in theaters) with crashing waves, torrential downpours, booming thunder, and a team desperate to get their stubborn swimmer out of the water. Add in shark encounters, jellyfish stings, and cutting-edge tech to keep Diana safe and you really feel like you’re a part of the team.
But, of course, like many biopics, the performances make us want to get into the water in the first place. Bening & Foster make a convincing pair of long-time friends with a romantic past. Their sometimes “Odd Couple”/Grumpy Old Men energy takes some getting used to, but, as Foster’s Stoll becomes more vocal with her feelings on the place she holds in their relationship, the story deepens with extra layers that go beyond the water.
As an actress who has thrived on grating & caustic characters in the past, Bening continues to impress with how she can churn sympathy out of the brusque & unyielding. With Nyad, she never shies away from showing Diana’s antagonistic & self-aggrandizing side as it serves to bolster her rare moments of vulnerability as the film progresses. With Foster, she is the lion tamer to Bening’s lion; a port in the storm that shields the world from Diana’s lesser qualities. She bends and bends until she finally breaks, but the mending of this fragile ecosystem might be the best stuff in the film. Foster’s “I wanna be the last person you see” speech might be the reason she gets nominated at the Oscars again this year.
My hope for the film and its talent in front of and behind the camera is that it’s taken on the merits of the story & the production and not overshadowed by the potential controversy surrounding the accomplishments of Diana Nyad. While it is true that Nyad’s legendary swim has been removed from the Guinness Book of World Records due to the scrutiny of the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA), the researchers on the film feel strongly that Nyad did, in fact, complete the swim with no cheats or caveats. For more information on that, you can read the Vanity Fair story that explains it all as the movie heads into Awards Season.
Overall, NYAD is a worthy addition to the sports underdog story subgenre. While clunky & formulaic at times, the film is bolstered by its lead performances in Bening & Foster, its emotional secret sauce with Rhys Ifans’ John Bartlett, solid production values on the open water, & a staggering accomplishment worthy of our time. A lesser team would have made this a more standard “movie of the week” entry, but, instead, we’re treated to a far more dynamic & compelling story that appeals to sports enthusiasts and the older generation alike.
Watch NYAD on Netflix If You Like
- Free Solo
- Eddie The Eagle
- The Swimmers
- True Spirit
MVP of Netflix’s NYAD
Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll
While Bening has the hard task of taking on a physical role mixed with a polarizing personality, Foster has an equally daunting task of being the emotional anchor of the story and the audience avatar for how to navigate Nyad’s story. She humanizes Bening’s Nyad while giving an impassioned speech before Diana’s successful attempt that tugs at the heartstrings at a crucial time in the film. Though the Best Supporting Actress field is as loaded as it’s ever been, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Foster nominated again this year.
Score for Netflix’s Nyad
Historical controversy & slow start aside, NYAD hits all the right notes of a strong underdog sports story with solid, emotional performances from Bening, Foster, & Ifans.