“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” asks Mary Oliver in her poem “The Summer Day,” which offers a mantra throughout Nyad. The film is a crowd pleaser to its core as Nyad (Annette Bening) stumbles across the poem on her 60th birthday and decides to confront the dream she never realized. This inspiring true story from directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin dramatizes swimmer and sports broadcaster Diana Nyad’s 2013 feat of swimming unassisted from Cuba to Florida. Archival footage shows audiences clips of Nyad’s failed attempts to make the swim in 1978, and the good face she put on in the years since then. However, summoned by the poem and the thought of defying sexism and ageism with one stroke, Nyad hops back in the water.
Nyad, which drew well-deserved roars of applause at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year and should inspire further hurrahs in living rooms when it hits Netflix in November, is an emotionally gripping journey through Nyad’s determination to keep swimming. It’s a testament to the talent of everyone involved that Nyad’s story fuels such genuine emotion. To put it simply, the swimmer is one prickly character. However, Annette Bening’s interpretation of Nyad’s dogged, type-A, never-take-no-for-an-answer demeanour is precisely what makes the film click. It’s the one thing she plans to do with her wild and precious life. She’s damn well going to do it right unless she dies trying.
Nyad the Water Nymph
Nyad dives into her training with her best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) reluctantly agreeing to be her coach. Diana is aware that her body is 33 years older than it was during her failed swim. But she knows that her mind is older, too. She insists that the mental strength she gains with age outweighs the limitations of her body. Moreover, the screenplay by Julia Cox sees Nyad learn from her past. Flashbacks show young Diana witness an abusive relationship between her mother and step-father. School life is worse with her bond with swim coach Jack Nelson growing creepier with each appearance. As it becomes clear that the abuse that Nyad and other swimmers faced at Nelson’s hands still haunts Diana, the long swim offers a means through which she can escape the trauma she’s carried her entire adult life.
As Diana practices, perfects her strokes, and gets her body into shape, the refuses to be swayed by the daunting task. Others deem the 100 mile swim physically impossible. Sponsors, moreover, aren’t nearly as interested in supporting her expired dream as they were decades ago. However, Nyad’s unflappable “superiority complex,” as Bonnie puts it, fuels her. She reminds everyone that her Greek stepfather taught her that the family name, Nyad, means “water nymph.” Nyad sees the swim as her destiny, come hell or high water.
When Diana and Bonnie jet to St. Maarten to assemble their crew, they learn from previous mistakes. They hire a navigator (Rhys Ifans, delightfully salty) who won’t guide Diana into choppy waters. They also get newfangled shark deterrents and two kayakers to keep Diana safe. That way, sharks won’t kill her, but she’ll make the record for doing the swim unassisted without a shark cage. The threats are everywhere, as Nyad learns once she dives in.
A Keen Eye for Non-Fiction
Although Nyad’s story is well known, the film finds great drama when Diana departs from Cuba about partway through the film. She’s unsuccessful then, and again, and again. Jellyfish thwart her, as do treacherous storms and rough currents that deplete her energy. But she just keeps swimming. Bonnie cheers her on, offering a voice of sanity.
The film, in true rousing sports movie fashion, gives Diana a genuine underdog arc as the odds and elements work against her. Vasarhelyi and Chin, making their dramatic debut after documentaries like the Oscar winner Free Solo, and adventure docs Meru and The Rescue, incorporate lots of actuality footage of Nyad’s swims both successful and unsuccessful. Their work with the deep dives of The Rescue, which featured re-enactments of cave divers in treacherous circumstances, lends itself to their keen dramatization of the choppy waters. The filmmakers, adventurers themselves, don’t do anything halfway in their documentary work and Nyad is no different. It resonates with the spirit of filmmakers who truly understand what drives their risking-taking heroine.
The film might not feature all 40 people who witnessed Nyad’s successful trek, but the wealth of material that Vasarhelyi and Chin, working with editor Cristopher Tellefsen, deftly weave throughout the swim illustrates how the Nyad draws upon the documentarians’ sense for getting the story right. (The film has inspired renewed challenges to Nyad’s record, while the swimmer and filmmakers stand by the story.) Moreover, the film’s kaleidoscopic editing style, evoking the best of Jean-Marc Vallée playbook (Nyad is basically Wild in the water), intimately links Diana’s past adversity as her motivation. Her team clearly learns from any mistakes, and she abides by a mantra to never give up.
It helps, too, that Bening completely sells Nyad’s convictions throughout the journey. This performance marks an extraordinary physical and emotional exertion on the actor’s part. It’s a demanding role, not just for all the time Bening spends in the cold choppy water. Bening captures viewers’ attention through a large stretches of silent acting. Her feat calls to mind Sandra Bullock’s bravura turn in Gravity, which delivered thrilling suspense simply through the dramatic cadence and timing of her breathing. The focus, the drive, the exhaustion: Bening captures all of this from behind Nyad’s goggles and with water splashing all around her. Equally impressive is her ability to invite empathy despite Nyad’s exhausting optimism. People might ask why the swimmer endeavours such a risky adventure, but Bening conveys through Diana’s unflappable belief in her calling.
With Jodie Foster providing a surrogate for the audience in the form of Nyad’s indefatigable bestie Bonnie Stoll, one can only root for Diana as she approaches the swim with focus and precision. If Bening’s lead is the draw for Nyad, the true heart of the film belongs to Jodie Foster. The actress delivers her best performance since The Silence of the Lambs by letting audiences see through Bonnie what Nyad’s swim means to the world. Not a second of Nyad would work if Bonnie’s faith in her friend didn’t shine through. Emotionally, Foster hasn’t seemed this comfortable in a character’s skin in a long time. It’s a rich, natural, and lived-in performance as Bonnie yearns to make her own mark on the world, but selflessly commits herself to her friend’s plight. If Nyad inspires people through Diana’s feat, it’s ultimately a great portrait of the friendships that carry us throughout our lives.