October 20, 2023
Nyad screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases it in theaters on October 20 before the film streams on November 03.
It’s not hard to see why documentary directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin found themselves attracted to the story of Diana Nyad. With their Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, the duo introduced (at least to the public at large) the character of Alex Honnold. He’s reckless, charismatic, and someone polite people would call a “free spirit.” Having that much of a personality dangling on the side of a rock hundreds of feet in the air is a combination made for the cinema. It was a film you had to see on the big screen, with the stunning imagery and stakes making it a thrill ride to rival even the most high-octane blockbuster.
Diana Nyad seemed to cut off the same cloth as Honnold. She came to prominence in the 1970s, setting several world swim records such as the fastest time ever in the 22-mile Gulf of Naples race and swimming the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in just under 8 hours. She’s someone who doesn't understand the word “no,” which does make her quite the asshole to her friends and trainers as they often beg her to see the consequences of her illogical actions. For all her trophies and achievements, one thing has always alluded her: The 101-mile swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida. She wasn’t able to do it in her 20s, she’ll be damned if she can’t get it done in her 60s.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening plays Nyad, who finally accomplished her treacherous swim after four failed attempts. There’s no denying, or shame in admitting, that this is a role tailor-made to get Bening her overdue trophy. It’s an extremely challenging role, both physically and emotionally. She’s not that nice of a person, being bossy and always pushing everyone around. But Bening never lets you outright hate her as you’re always aware that she can do something no one else can, and the only way to accomplish it is to break a few eggs.
Much of the film is set in the water during Nyad’s various attempts. The problem is that swimming is a bit like running in that it’s not the most cinematically engaging sport to watch. I’m oversimplifying things quite a bit (like all movies), but there’s not much of a visual difference between Nyad’s failures and success. You see her in the water pushing herself to the extreme, yet you don’t feel it deep down like you should. Much of that has to do with the flatly competent direction by Vasarhelyi and Chin, who are making their feature narrative debut here. Outside of the somewhat jarringly stitched-together sizzle reels that feel lifted right from their documentaries, the pair never can bring this story out of the water, which is quite the shame considering the talents of Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi, Top Gun: Maverick) were at their disposal.
There’s a hollowness to the story and characters. Writer Julia Cox can’t find more within the character of Diana Nyad that Bening doesn’t do herself. It’s impressive to see Nyad make these attempts but at some point, we all ask ourselves why she’s doing it, and the answers are both unclear and unsatisfactory. Helping carry Bening’s baggage is an excellent Jodie Foster as her best friend and trainer, Bonnie. It may be because she’s always sharing scenes with a person who seems like a fish out of water, but Foster/Bonnie is the unexpected heart and soul of the film.
Nyad is stuck in an awkward middle ground. It doesn’t possess enough cinematic spectacle to be a Netflix original that deserves to be seen in the theater. It also doesn’t have enough energy or interesting characters to hold people’s attention as they watch it on the couch. There will be some that get a lot out of this, but for most, me included, this feels like an untapped opportunity for almost everyone involved.