Through a handful of thrilling documentary features Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have proven themselves extremely capable filmmakers documenting the extremes of human endurance and determination. Their subjects have frequently been willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the impossible and push their bodies to the absolute limit. In some cases — The Rescue — that pursuit is in service of noble heroics, in others — Free Solo — its a vanity to be remembered by history and seen as the hero. Whatever the reason, Vasarhelyi and Chin have become a singular lens through which to see extreme athletes, making Diana Nyad the perfect subject for their first narrative feature.
Nyad is best known as an accomplished marathon swimmer, setting a number of records in the 70s for both distance and speed in open ocean swims of as much as 100 miles. Her failed effort to swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida loomed over her other accomplishments and at age 61 she began a series of attempts to finally accomplish the feat. An extreme athlete pushing the boundaries of age and physical achievement, if they were making movies back in 2013, Vasarhelyi and Chin might have followed Nyad’s swims with their documentary cameras. Instead she is the muse of their narrative debut.
Elite athletes reach the pinnacle of their sports by unique alchemy of mind and body. Not only must one be physically strong enough to face the rigors of sport, they must also possess a perseverance to overcome impossible odds and, more often than not, a hubris that drives them to believe they can accomplish anything. Diana Nyad (Annette Benning) possesses these traits. Whether speaking to her best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster,) friends and party guests or really anyone whose ear she can grab, Nyad is constantly talking about the aquatic exploits of her youth or the fact that her name literally means “water nymph,” a clear sign that her destiny has always been at sea. Growing bored of “mediocrity” as she ages, Nyad returns to the water to finish what she started over 30 years ago.
As you may expect from the filmmaking duo that thrillingly recreated the real life cave diving sequences of the Thai soccer team crisis in The Rescue, Nyad is most effective and efficient in putting the rigors of open ocean swimming to screen. Many of the most compelling scenes find massive waves, looming thunder and an assortment of deadly sea creatures bearing down on Nyad. Portraying the grueling nature of over 150 hours at sea across 4 attempts might be the filmmaking equivalent of the Cuba to Florida swim, exceedingly difficult but not impossible, and Nyad does struggle with the translation of that to screen. Still, the iterative, elliptical nature of the attempts do express a relentlessness to the titular character.
Out of the water is where Nyad begins to flounder. Diana Nyad’s self assuredness is suffocating and not helped by a one dimensional performance from Benning. In a work of fiction, she would be a Lydia Tár type heel, destined for a fall from grace. Her true life story even includes a fair amount of controversy around her final swim that goes wholly unexplored in this biopic. As easy as it is to root for a 60 year old defying the odds, accomplishing something she could not even at her physical peak, this particular 60 year old alienates everyone close to her and experiences very little perspective change over the course the hour and a half film.
It isn’t just Benning or her character though, Vasarhelyi and Chin’s adaptation from documentary work to narrative filmmaking hits rough water at times as well. The sport action is well within their wheelhouse but the drama between Bonnie and Diana falls flat through weak dialogue, awkward cuts and a strange narrative pacing. Nyad’s swimming is intercut with fragmented flashbacks to her youth — a father that was ambiguously problematic, a swimming coach that sexually assaulted her— with little connection back to her psyche in the moment. A more delicate handling of these crucial and devastating elements of Nyad’s past would have served the film and her story better. These are nuances that have to be explored when working with characters, even real ones, rather than people.
Still, there is admirable work in Nyad. The people in Diana’s orbit deliver good performances and make it easier to root for the team to get her ashore in Key West. Jodie Foster has been working more behind the camera than in front of it of late, but her Bonnie holds as the emotional core of the film in her exasperated but dogged support as Nyad’s best friend and coach. Rhys Ifans too turns in a touching and melancholic role of John Bartlett, team Nyad’s navigator.
Nyad is built on component parts that are promising but their combination leaves a lot to be desired. Diana’s determination and ultimate accomplishment lay a great foundation for a classic sports underdog story. What the filmmakers miss in their narrative debut is the way in which the best sports movies are not really about athletic achievement, rather about the athlete becoming the best version of themselves. Rocky loses his climactic fight, but he wins the hearts and minds of audiences. Benning’s Nyad does come around to work with her team in the end, but that growth is so surface level that it nearly washes away in the surf, and her story suffers for it. 5/10