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Nyad ★★★



Directed: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Cast: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans

Released: 3rd November 2023 (Netflix)

The word ‘nyad’ means water nymph. It’s a fact repeatedly mentioned by veteran marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, with its continued recurrence underscoring the notion of destiny and forming her unshakeable determination to become the first person to swim 60 hours from Cuba to Florida. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and based on Nyad’s autobiography Find a Way, Annette Bening stars as the titular swimmer who, at the age of 64, achieved what many thought impossible. 

While the film’s existence comes as a result of success, much of Nyad’s journey is characterised by failure. A seasoned marathon swimmer in 1978, at age 28, she tried and failed to complete the record-setting swim. Having retired in the aftermath, we meet Nyad over 30 years later on her 60th birthday. Energised by a book by the poet Mary Oliver, she decides her plans for her ‘one wild and precious life’ do not include waiting to die, as women of her age are expected to settle down and do quietly; instead, it’s to give everything to accomplishing the achievement that has eluded her. 

Aided by best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) as her coach, Nyad assembles a team of experts, including navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), to tackle the epic swim. In depicting Nyad, Chin and Vasarhelyi, the team behind the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, display much-needed discernment. Nyad’s single-minded focus is often shown to come with little concern or gratitude towards those working tirelessly to maintain her safety. Described head-on as a superiority complex, at times, her all-encompassing ego feels downright obnoxious, however, at these points, it feels important to acknowledge that these traits in male athletes are often accepted and in many cases lauded. 

The audacity of a woman in her 60s to so fiercely believe herself capable is admirable. This makes Bening a perfect fit for the role as she brings a spikiness reminiscent of her turn as Caroline Burnham in American Beauty, delicately counterbalanced with relatable vulnerability. Foster, as Bonnie, also serves as a welcome contrast. Her warm, easy-going energy and dedication to her friend make her crucial to both the success of the mission and to the film itself. While Nyad is anchored by the magnetising performances of Bening and Foster, elements of the filmmaking fall short. A series of flashbacks to Nyad’s earlier life and sexual abuse by her swim coach are shot in a hazy sepia tone that looks incredibly amateur and out of step with the presentation of other harrowing moments. 

There are many positive messages to be taken away from Nyad. It’s no doubt inspirational to see Nyad refuse to let failure have the final word, but what truly pulls at the heartstrings in Nyad’s final moments is its testament to the power of true friendship. Bening and Foster are simply a delight to witness together and elevate an underdog story into one that resonates far beyond a single achievement. 

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