There are many reasons to be in great physical shape, and achieving that goal comes more easily for some than others. Yet just being fit and healthy isn’t nearly enough for the most driven, who excel at a given sport or specific ability and yearn to be the best in their field. What the most impressive athletes have accomplished will surely seem unfathomable for the masses, not just their achievements but the mere existence of the ideas. The subject of the new biographical film “NYAD“ is one such example, setting out to accomplish a monumental and unprecedented feat.
Three decades after failing to swim the approximately 100-mile distance between Cuba and Florida, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) decides that now is the time to try again. Though she’s sixty years old and hasn’t swum professionally since she was thirty, Nyad remains as driven as ever. She recruits her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) to be her coach and finds a navigator, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), whose gruff personality is made up for by his impressive knowledge of seafaring. Nyad, who is fiercely driven and won’t be talked out of achieving what she wants, must work with those around her to find a way to travel safely through treacherous waters and reach the destination she’s desired for so long to reach.
NYAD is noteworthy as the narrative directorial debut of married filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who won Oscars for the 2018 documentary Free Solo. It’s no surprise that they would choose someone in the world of sports as the subject for this new career step, and the film’s structure is reminiscent of another excellent nonfiction film of theirs, The Rescue. The presentation of Nyad’s multiple swims and the ticking clock feels very similar to the dive times and onscreen maps in that exploration of the daring Thai cave rescue, and both devices work well to anchor their respective stories.
At the heart of this film is not just the character of Nyad but the actress playing her. Bening has amassed four Oscar nominations over the course of a career that dates back to her first screen credit in 1986, and she brings a familiar unstoppable determination to her portrayal of Nyad, which includes her regularly launching into lengthy stories about the meaning of her family name that Stoll always tries to interrupt for the sake of the listener. Foster, herself a two-time Oscar winner who has been acting since the age of seven, serves as a fantastic foil to Bening, representing a true friendship that necessarily keeps them in separate spheres, Stoll as the cheerleader and Nyad as the star athlete.
The focus of this film feels deliberate and makes the most of its roughly two-hour runtime. Archive news footage introduces Nyad’s 1979 failed effort and then jumps immediately to 2010, when she is suddenly hit with inspiration to try again. After convincing everyone around her to go for it, her first attempt fails and she’s asked whether she’ll give it another shot, and the next scene flashes forward to that very event. The pacing of the film feels just right, deliberately and sometimes agonizingly slow when it seeks to convey the grandeur of what she’s doing and much brisker when it’s glossing over unimportant details like the passage of time between one momentous journey and the next.
Knowing the historical outcome of Nyad’s swims and her legacy isn’t crucial – or detrimental – to enjoying this film. As its ending approaches, it’s easy to become swept up in the excitement of what it was that she merely sought to achieve. All that is brought to marvelous cinematic life by a team that includes cinematographer Claudio Miranda and composer Alexandre Desplat, among others. It’s a fittingly inspirational film that paints an enticing portrait of its two protagonists and should make for a sufficiently enthralling watch at home on Netflix.
NYAD is streaming exclusively on Netflix.