Directed By Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vesarhelyi
Starring – Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans
The Plot – A riveting chapter in the life of world-class athlete Diana Nyad (Bening). Three decades after giving up marathon swimming in exchange for a prominent career as a sports journalist, at the age of 60, Diana becomes obsessed with completing an epic swim that 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 (Foster) and a dedicated sailing team.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual abuse, some strong language and brief partial nudity
Being that Chin and Vesarhelyi are the documentarian duo behind “Free Solo” and “The Rescue”, the transition to a narrative based engagement feels effortless, especially in their ability to conjure and articulate the difficulty of the challenge before Diana in swimming 110 miles across 52 straight hours. Aside from the magnitude of the body of water in its on-site shooting location, which is documented dramatically in the scope and scale of Claudio Miranda’s extending cinematography, featuring lots of drone footage conveying the distance of Diana journey, the script also combines a physical and psychological duress to Diana that allows us to interpret every unexpected conflict that she meets along the way, with pacing that patiently but effectively reflect the ample amount of time that she spends at sea. Because of such, we’re given momentary glimpses into Diana’s tortured past that conveys the extent of her trauma without downright illustrating it into the script for us, and while Diana as a character is utilized responsibly with a bit of a selfishness for her own life, this element affords her the kind of empathy that we need to invest further into her objective. Adding even further to this investment is the time and attention paid to the dynamic of Diana and Bonnie, who share an inseperable friendship that feels romantic without being even remotely sexual. While there is an unshakeable chemistry between them, the film instead chooses to utilize their connection with a three-dimensional bond that makes them feel vital to the other’s life, all the while spawning a duo of decorated turns between them that begs for Oscar recognition. Bening’s transformation both visually and physically lends itself to some spectacular make-up designs that effortlessly convey the toll of the journey without feeling overdone, and when combined with the unorthodox but honest approach that she gives to Diana, which makes her anything but a conventional protagonist, outlines a role that uniquely feels unlike anything that she has attempted in the extent of her nearly forty year career, with a tremendous physical dedication that sees her attempting the same fates as Diana, but with four years her senior. As for Foster, she is also highly impactful in the confines of the film’s supporting character, with a spunky side to stoicism and affectionate gentility that solidifies her as the brains behind Diana’s brawn, with a blossoming delight to their constant bickering that took the engagements miles. Finally, while the film’s script does occasionally tread clunky waters in some underwhelming visual additions that I will get to in a second, the pacing remains consistent throughout the film’s two hour run time, with an equal distribution in the set-up and execution of the mission, which makes it all feel satisfyingly balanced in its insightful detailing. This helps to flesh out stakes and consequences to Julia Cox’s screenplay that doesn’t just refer to Diana’s immense quest, but also what’s invested by those within the team that surround her, cementing that Diana’s journey involves more on the line than just the internal disappointment from within her that casually haunts her throughout a mission that goes anything but ideal.
As to the disappointing aspects of “Nyad”, the editing quite often feels alienating, especially during swimming sequences, where the attention should be on the confines of the dangerous waters playing out before us. Instead of remaining faithfully by the side of our protagonist, the editing consistently cuts away to either play into an abusive element of Diana’s past, or more problematically, stock footage of the real Diana on various talk shows of media outlets to convey insight into events that in the confines of the film’s narrative, haven’t quite played out yet. This obviously spoils the intention of certain sequences in ways that immediately drain it of any tension or intensity, but beyond that offers unnecessary levity to sequences that demand our complete attention, creating a try-hard emphasis to scenes that should’ve been played by the simplistic side. As for that aforementioned abusive subplot in the history of Diana, it points towards a bigger problem with the script as one that constantly unloads aspects to the story that either feel underutilized or improper with where they’re revealed. In this case, it’s more of the former, with this element of exposition feeling like a bit of an afterthought in the way that it’s incorporated spontaneously with a sequence of Diana at sea, and only one future mention of her abuser in the duration of the narrative to support it. Lastly, while a vital aspect to conveying Diana’s complete mission in a thirty-five year tryst with the body of water she seeks to conquer, the film’s second act primarily plagues itself with a repetition in structure that it only evades after about a half hour of time spent between it. This is where a montage usually comes in handy during a sports biopic, but instead Chin and Vesarhelyi want the complete picture, and because of such it costs them the urgency needed to maintain a compelling emphasis, and by far the script’s most underwhelming area.
“Nyad” is an uplifting, crowd-pleasing sports biopic that conveys the complete picture of Diana Nyad’s remarkable journey to her dreams. Though the film is periodically strained by clumsy backstory or erroneous editing, the powerhouse performances from Bening and Foster keep it paddling above water, in turn solidifying a high-stakes introspective of obsession that continously swims with the current.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-