Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 2nd, 2023
Nyad (Jimmy Chin/Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
A little over 35 years after her first attempt, Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad finally completed the 110-mile swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, which had long been a dream of hers. What she could not do at the age of 28, she managed at 64. It was an incredible feat, and made her the first person to do so without the aid of a shark cage.
Now, after a successful career as documentarians, the married duo of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) turn their skills away from strictly nonfiction to direct this dramatization of Nyad’s accomplishment. Starring Annette Bening (Hope Gap) as Nyad and Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) as Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s longtime best friend (and eventual coach for these late Cuba-Florida attempts), the movie features two great actresses giving fully engaged performances. If the otherwise peppy script, by Julia Cox—based on Nyad’s 2015 book Find a Way—sometimes descends into predictable formula, both Bening and Foster keep everything more than watchable.
Because of their easy rapport, in fact, Nyad often feels like a buddy comedy, if not an outright rom-com. Don’t get the wrong idea, however: though Nyad and Stoll are both lesbians and dated many years ago, they are strictly besties. They love each other dearly, but the romance is platonic.
At least Stoll, as portrayed here, loves Nyad. For much of the movie, Nyad is a self-involved jerk (though an entertaining one), so single-mindedly focused on the logistics of her swim that she takes everyone around her for granted. If this sounds like many another story about hubristic souls needing to learn humility, that’s because it is (see above, re:formula).
When first we meet Diana Nyad, it’s her 60th birthday, and though she has asked Bonnie very clearly to not throw her a party, what are friends for if not to ignore such requests? Plus, Diana basks in attention. As we see, she will constantly regale anyone who listens about how her name mean “water nymph” and how she was therefore destined to be not only a swimmer but a champion one. But now at 60 she suddenly feels like life has passed her by. Time to return to the water.
There’s a lot more to her life than that, though, and besides frequently cutting to archival footage of the real Nyad, Chin and Vasarhelyi also give us flashbacks to Diana as a young girl, initially loved by—and then abandoned by—the stepfather who gave her that Greek last name, and then sexually abused by the swim coach whom she, herself, adored. These memories resurface as Nyad spends hours upon hours in the water, training and then re-attempting (four more times before getting it right) the crossing she couldn’t finish in 1978.
This is excellent mise-en-scène, as the flashbacks feel organic to the grueling endeavor of swimming for long periods of time. What else is one going to do while repeating stroke after stroke? And they help lend Nyad the necessary three-dimensionality for us to truly care about her. The actual details of each attempt are also gripping, given the dangers—sharks, box jellyfish, weather, dehydration, fatigue—along the way.
The rest of the cast match Bening and Foster for geniality, especially Rhys Ifans (The Phantom of the Open) as the late navigator John Bartlett, without whom Nyad would not have succeeded. It’s a genuinely fun affair, predictability notwithstanding. Take a deep breath, therefore, and dive in. The journey is worth it.