The biopic formula is tried and true. Inspired by “mostly” true stories, a protagonist faces incredible odds as they look to accomplish some inspirational feat. Along the way, a portrait is painted too often with colors and layers that have been glossed over to exalt the more stirring portions of the story. In the process of creating a hero, the gray areas where humanity is formed are often ignored in favor of a messianic depiction. The story crosses through peaks and valleys, with the hero eventually reaching their goals against the backdrop of a swelling, inspirational score. In this regard, Nyad is no different.
Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) is a retired marathon swimmer who has accomplished some incredulous nautical feats. Her “white whale” however, remains elusive. At age 28, Nyad sought to become the first person to swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida. Thirty-two years after coming up short, Nyad decides to attempt the feat again. She enlists the help of her friend and former romantic partner Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) and a slew of other professionals, including John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) as trip navigator. Predictability ensues after that. Nyad’s stubbornness threatens her undertaking as well as her friendships. Not only does she butt heads with Stoll, but she is also increasingly obstinate with the crew she entrusted to facilitate her journey. Nyad’s journey is far from smooth sailing, but the outcome or how it will ultimately be presented is never in doubt.
Nyad leaves a lot of meat on the bones. Themes relating to trauma, regret, abuse, and aging are touched on but never fully explored. Conversations about abuse are kept to a minimum, with uneven flashbacks (presented with a weird prism effect) failing to fully capture the scope of Nyad’s anguish. The topic of age discrimination is alluded to, but nothing is included other than dialogue to back this claim. Nyad’s methods for maintaining concentration and mental fortitude are unique and complex, but the film does not recreate these processes with any originality. During her swim attempts, the action is mostly focused on the events occurring alongside the companion boats rather than with the swimmer. Ultimately, what holds viewers’ attention is that the accomplishment is among the most impressive and awe-inspiring feats in recent history. It is a shame that the filmmakers ignored the elements that add substance to the characters and their accomplishments. The only thing with any real depth is the stretch of water between Cuba and Florida.
Where Nyad does blaze a trail for itself is in its performances. Bening delivers a powerful outing, portraying the swimmer as steadfast on the brink of dangerously obsessive. The problematic aspect behind this is barely explored, but Bening holds no restraint when focusing on the darker side of Nyad’s motivations. The role also demands a high level of physicality, where Bening has more than met the challenge. As Nyad’s supportive coach, Jodi Foster graces the screen with humor, charm, and grace. Where Bening is the iron will and muscle, Foster is the understanding and caring heart. The sincere interactions between the two are among the best and most entertaining Nyad has to offer. Given the film’s late season release date, it is evident Netflix is aiming for awards glory, and it would be of little surprise if one or both actresses would land acting nominations for their performances.
Aside from the performances, Nyad distinguishes itself with its effective use of archival footage. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are no strangers to the documentary feature. The directing pair won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with Free Solo in 2019 and proved their forte lies within that medium. The videos and sound bites selected complement the scenes well and help add sorely needed context. Chin and Vasarhelyi tried something different by directing a feature film, but the story of Nyad would be better served as a documentary in their hands.
As the movie reaches its triumphant climax, viewers will undoubtedly feel the inspiration seeping through the screen. The “water nymph” (Greek translation of the name Nyad, which Diana enthusiastically explains many times throughout) emerges victorious. The feel-good tale ends with more archival footage of Diana, Bonnie, and the rest of the crew. Audiences will be well-served sticking around, as these scenes offer the only true glimpse of who Nyad might be.