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Film Review: Nyad

FILM REVIEW
NYAD
Rated PG-13
121 Minutes
Released November 3rd
Oscar Nominations: Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actress

“I failed many times, but I can look back without regret because I was never burdened with the paralysis of fear and inaction,” writes Diana Nyad in her 2016 memoir Find a Way. This movie is adapted from that memoir by screenwriter Julia Cox. 

The film focuses on one of several triumphs in the life of Nyad, a champion distance swimmer who has always pushed the boundaries of human effort. The difference between Nyad and the rest of us is her extraordinary athleticism, stamina, persistence, and her ability to dissociate during marathon swims. Her extreme level of determination may have been shaped by sexual assaults by her swimming coach in her early teens. Says Nyad, “All that ocean-swimming I did back in the ’70s was just filled with anger, and sometimes anger is very powerful.” Very few champion athletes have honed the will to succeed to the point of self-destruction over failure, as did Nyad.

Nyad started swimming seriously in 7th grade. She won three Florida state championships in high school and wanted to swim in the 1968 Olympics, but she became infected with endocarditis, a disease of the heart. She was never able to regain her speed as a swimmer, so in college, she honed her skills as a marathon swimmer while she studied for a degree in comparative literature. 

Later, she became a sports journalist. She has written four books, contributed to an NPR news show and CBS News, and is a motivational speaker. In 1979, she swam from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida, 102 miles, in 27 hours, a world record, reaching the shore in Florida on her 30th birthday, announcing that this was her last competitive swim. 

However, at the age of 60, Diana began training to finish what she had started years before and never completed – a swim from Cuba to Florida, through 110 miles of some of the most treacherous ocean waters in the world, full of deadly sharks and jellyfish and extreme currents. That swim had never been mastered without a shark cage protecting the swimmer. It took five attempts, but in 2013, at the age of 64, Nyad finally succeeded, declaring “three messages: one is we should never ever give up, two is you are never too old to chase your dreams, and three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.”

I was wondering how a movie about a woman swimming for 48 hours straight was going to be enlightening or even interesting. The writer and directors carefully included hints about past incidents and relationships in Nyad’s life that shaped her personality, revealing them at key points in the narrative. Producers chose a great director team for this project, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasahely, who have worked together for years on documentaries. 

Chin is himself an extreme athlete and mountaineer. He instinctively knows the mindset. They won an Oscar in 2019 for their documentary Free Solo, about rock climber Alex Honnold, who scaled El Capitan alone without a safety rope. Here, in their first non-documentary feature, they have skillfully blended the story with graphically detailed close shots of Nyad’s incredible grind of stroke after stroke for hours, attacks by poisonous jellyfish and sharks, and the battle with the human body’s instinct to shut down in the face of extreme stress. 

They give us a sense of the vastness and loneliness of the sea and the sheer battle of physical struggle under duress. The story is deftly orchestrated to include the cadre of intrepid friends who follow Nyad and act as her cheerleaders and protectors, from the ocean and from herself. The directors have included clips of the real Diana Nyad from childhood to the present. 

Composer Andre Desplat and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Top Gun: Maverick) paint the emotions and the grandeur of the ocean amidst the music going on in Diana’s head as she is swimming. Annette Benning and Jodie Foster, as Nyad and best friend/ coach “Bonnie Stoll,” give such real performances they trick you into believing the movie is documentary footage. 

They replicated Nyad’s tenacity to make the film. Nyad noted that Benning “showed exemplary endurance. She worked for a year to get ready for this, and it showed.” Nyad and Stoll were both “over the moon that these are the actresses portraying us.” Nyad and Stoll have been friends since they were in their 30s. Nyad today at 74, posts on social media about the advantages of swimming and still does open-water swims. 

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which has been the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people.  She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com

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