Diana Nyad had been a world-class endurance athlete for years when, after swimming around Manhattan in a little under eight hours in 1975, she became a celebrity and a talk-show staple. At the age of 30, Nyad retired after breaking the open-ocean record by going from the Bahamas to Florida, one stroke at a time, in 27 hours. She transitioned into sportscasting, wrote books, hosted radio shows, did the occasional motivational speaker gig, and enjoyed the rewards of a life well lived.
Still, one thing consistently nagged at Nyad. In 1978, the face of competitive marathon swimming attempted to make the treacherous 60-hour, 103-mile journey from Cuba to Key West. It did not go well. Everything from strong winds to the threat of sharks played against her favor, and she was forced to abandon what she believed would be her crowning achievement. Decades passed. Then, shortly after her 60th birthday, Nyad revisited the idea of trying to do it again. Yes, she was older. And, admittedly, she had not strapped on the training goggles for almost 30 years. But this time, Nyad believed she had the mental fortitude and the willpower to nab the brass ring that had eluded her grasp, once and for all.
If you’ve read Find a Way, Nyad’s account of her arduous quest to take care of unfinished business, or have access to Google, you know what happens next. For those who do not, or who might be interested in seeing famous people recreate the sheer hell that this one-in-a-million champion and her team went through, there is Nyad, a biopic designed to highlight the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, though not in that order. (Apologies if this constitutes a spoiler.) Dropping on Netflix on November 3rd, it’s a solid primer about the who, what, when and how of it all, with the “why” being implied — i.e. other than that business with the white whale, Captain Ahab, how was the Pequod’s voyage? And it’s also a reminder that we’ve now officially entered the strong undertow of awards season, where many such based-on-a-true-story tales of tragedy and triumph tend to sink or you-know-what to glory.
Yes, we know this sounds extremely cynical. There are undoubtedly dozens of reasons that Annette Bening wanted to play Diana Nyad, and not just because it gives the four-time Oscar nominee a chance to prove her own do-or-die bona fides by training with an Olympian for a full year before cameras rolled. The role is a license to be flinty, unintentionally funny, self-focused but not self-aware, competitive to a fault (Scrabble, ping pong, swimming oceans: name something that Nyad might beat someone in, and she will try her damnedest to win), tough, tenacious, and then ultimately humble and redeemed. The same goes for Jodie Foster, who costars as Nyad’s long-suffering best friend, confidante and coach, Bonnie Stoll. The unfortunate industry consensus is that there are few good parts for female screen actors over a certain age. This movie has two.
And for documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, this movie gives them a chance to splash around in the pool of narrative filmmaking while also adhering to what we’d call, for lack of a better word, their “brand.” This power couple has made nonfiction features about extreme athletes, perilous endeavors, and people consistently pushing themselves past their limits (in the case of 2018’s Free Solo, all three); they can also find inspiration even in tragic tales, as with this year’s portrait of Chin’s friend and conservationist legend Doug Tompkins, Wild Life. Nyad’s story is, among other things, a vehicle for them to channel those instincts, their understanding of a certain mindset, and a signature accentuate-the-positive sense of IRL mythmaking into mainstream entertainment. The bits of news reports and real-Nyad appearances deftly nestled alongside Bening’s reel-Nyad brow-furrowed determination to rise again — and again, and again — from the ashes suggest not just a template for docu-hybrids but an expanding set of skills.
So no, Nyad isn’t exactly slathering, pandering, take-no-prisoners Oscar bait. Yet it replicates the same formula, the same story beats and the same predictable signifiers of authenticity (here’s Bening recreating a speech about it never being too late to dream big, and here’s the real Nyad saying the exact same thing as credits start rolling) as those types of projects to a degree that might convince you otherwise. Nyad’s life story is filled with obstacles and backward steps, not to mention a complicated relationship with her father and incidents of sexual abuse from a trusted father figure in the form of a coach. The way that Nyad’s determination to check one major piece of unfinished business off her bucket list is presented here as a roll call of personal demons — here she’s trying to outswim her trauma, and here she’s trying to outswim her past — feels like heavy-handed pop psychology at best, and courts cliché at worst. These things were certainly part of her journey, but the manner in which they’re integrated into her dissociative marathon swims at sea risk them feeling like a stroke too far.
Better are the scenes in which Bening and Foster affectionately go toe-to-toe with each other (as opposed to several speechifying sequences that scream “the envelope, please!”), or one or both of them bicker with the swim’s navigator John Bartlett, played by Rhys Ifans as if he’s auditioning for a lead in an adaptation of a Jimmy Buffett song. There are real human interactions happening when these three share the screen and they’re not strategizing, fretting about weather patterns or flailing about after jellyfish attacks. And in those moments when the actors simply give you Nyad’s immovable object butting up against Stoll’s irresistible force, you can feel a spark starting to ignite the movie in a way that the actual triumph, oddly enough, does not. As a portrait of a friendship, one tested by decades of high times and lows, successes and failures, bad behavior and forgiveness, Nyad the movie is trawling deeper waters. As a bio-dramatization of one human’s resilience — and thus a stand-in for the triumph of the human spirit overall — it comes perilously close to merely treading them.