Annette Bening recreates great swimming achievement in inspiring Nyad
Even for fans, significant sports accomplishments and milestones have a way of fading away over time. People of a certain age may remember the name of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam around Manhattan and from the Bahamas to Florida in the late 1970s. But do you remember that her most significant swimming feat came just 10 years ago when she was 64 years old?
That event, her swimming over 100 miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida, is at the center of Nyad. Annette Bening stars as Nyad, who - when the film begins - is 30 years removed from her ‘70s heyday, living an anonymous life in Los Angeles with her best friend, Bonnie (Jodie Foster). Even though it’s been forever since she swam competitively, a desire to not just sit around in the twilight of her life leads her to take up the sport again.
She soon goes from recreational laps at the neighborhood pool to an obsessive need to do the only thing that eluded her in her younger years, the Cuba-to-Florida swim, something that no other swimmer had been able to do either. With her intense personality, she convinces Bonnie to be her coach, and hires a team – including navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) – to help guide her through the notoriously tough waters.
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and written by Julia Cox from Nyad’s autobiography, the film is inspirational, but not in the faux way that some schmaltzy movies can be. Instead, the filmmakers rouse by showing just how insanely difficult that particular swim is, with its swift crossing currents and dangerous sea creatures, especially for a woman of her age.
Chin and Vasarhelyi, directing their first narrative feature after years of helming documentaries like Free Solo, devote themselves to verisimilitude here, putting Bening (and, likely, a stunt double) into the open water instead of overusing CGI. That effort pays real dividends, as there’s just something about seeing someone actually swimming in rough seas that ups the stakes of the story.
Even though Nyad is the protagonist of the story, they don’t try to hide her ornery personality. She has a monomaniacal focus on her goal that sometimes puts her and those who are helping her in danger. They also repeatedly show her alienating conversation partners with a need to tell them the complete details about her swimming achievements, making her seem like not the most fun person to be around in general.
Bening is as good as ever in the lead role, laying herself bare in multiple ways to inhabit Nyad’s persona. The same age as Nyad was during the events in the film, she shows that the right pairing of actor and part can yield great results. Foster is equally impressive, delivering a performance that is definitely supporting, but still shows her star skills. Ifans, playing a rare American, is also solid in a limited appearance.
Nyad has a few clunky moments, but for the most part it’s a well-told and -staged story about an athlete defying the odds. Perhaps this film will keep Nyad’s remarkable triumph from vanishing from world’s memory, with the help of two of the best actors in recent Hollywood history.
Nyad is currently playing at IPIC Theater in Houston anddebuts on Netflix on November 3.