Written by Kerry Phelps Dale | Photos courtesy of Netflix
“Nyad” is an uplifting and inspiring biopic that tells the story of Diana Nyad (Annette Benning) and her 103-mile, 53-hour swim from Cuba to Key West at the age of 64.
When Diana Nyad turns 60, she has to reckon with her age and the perceived limitations that go with growing old. It is the poet Mary Oliver’s line, “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life,” that serves as the catalyst for the rebirth of the swimmer. Former athlete turned sports commentator, she yearns to shed the “bystander” role and get back in the water.
Ridiculous, her long-time friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) tells her. At her age, what is she thinking? Such words and sentiments play throughout the film as gauntlets for Diana. “I don’t believe in imposed limitations. I don’t believe in any limitations.”
Diana seeks the approval and support of Bonnie, and thus best friends become athlete and coach and the training commences.
The swim must be accomplished without assistance — Diana may not touch the boat and no one may touch her. As part of her unrelenting bravado, she determines to make the swim through the shark-infested and fast-moving water that flows between Cuba and Key West sans shark cage. The movie leads audiences through the harrowing experiences of her multiple attempts, complete with box jellyfish, storms, threatening sharks, and an allergic reaction to a medication.
The swim itself would certainly make for a riveting film (directed by “Free Solo” Academy Award-winning team), but “Nyad” is so much more. It is a story of determination, resilience, and friendship.
At times the script could be heavy-handed and clumsy. Mantras spoken over and over by Diana feel like an anthology of inspirational quotes and narcissistic declarations. There are also flashbacks of her swims as a young girl and having been abused by her coach that seem to disrupt the film’s flow.
It is the superb performances from Bening and Foster that maintain interest in the endeavor and ultimately inspire celebration. The team effort of the crew is remarkable. Bening is compelling in portraying sheer narcissism peppered with flashes of striking vulnerability, and Foster brilliantly showcases the sense and sensibility of Bonnie.
Watching the venerable Bening and Foster on the big screen together playing aging women who live large is awe-inspiring. Though Bening does the heavy lifting in this film — the training and swimming and holding on to the superego essence of Diana — Foster is equally mesmerizing as the more authentic Bonnie. Both women are magnetic on screen. Rhys Ifans also turns in a superb performance as John, the crusty and brilliant all-important navigator for all five of Diana’s adventures.
And though it is the feat of swimming from Cuba to Key West that is the centerpiece to “Nyad,” it is the decades-long friendship of the two women that fuels the film. Diana finally realizes her accomplishment is owing to the incredible dedication of Bonnie, John, and the team.
Leaving the film feeling uplifted and inspired, I overheard a 40-something woman say, “I’m just so tired from watching movies.” She might need to see the film a few more times. ML
Published in the November 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.