Nyad (2023)

Annette Bening and Jodie Foster demonstrate it’s not about the destination but the journey

Still of Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in ‘Nyad’ (2023)

Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in ‘Nyad’ (2023)

Synopsis

It’s the kind of movie that tempts you to go Googling. Did Diana Nyad, one of the world’s most accomplished marathon swimmers, actually swim from Cuba to Florida at age 64? I, for one, never heard about this swim … or was it just an attempted swim? I didn’t want to know. I just watched.

And, well, it turns out the answer is Yes, she did. No spoiler. What else could it be? Would any investor put down real money on this type of talent to set a failure to film? But as you will see, it’s not about the destination, but the journey.

From the very first moments as Nyad (Annette Bening) and her lifelong friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) are chatting outside the Petco on a resupply run, you know you’re in for an absorbing buddy movie. Both actors are so natural, so comfortable, so right in their roles that you’re easily hooked.

Here are the bare facts: In 2010, 60-year-old Nyad has a sort of epiphany. Age should not stop her from accomplishing the one feat that eluded her: a 1978 attempt to swim solo through shark-infested waters from Cuba to Key West, Florida. To everyone else, including her friend Bonnie, it sounds nutty. To Diana, it’s inevitable if she commits to it completely.

But she just can’t walk down the beach in Cuba and dive in. She cajoles Bonnie into being her trainer and John Barlett (Rhys Ifans) into piloting the boat that will shepherd her in the crossing. She must combat skepticism to scrape together funds, and over the course of five attempts through 2013, she assembles a team of experts that, with every failure, help her fine-tune the attack. Better navigation and insight into weather and currents. Smarter protection against both sharks and a deadly species of jellyfish that global warming has driven into those waters since her last attempt.

The swims are filmed in an almost documentary way from the perspective of the team, but through Nyad’s eyes we see her flashbacks and hallucinations as she pushes herself to the limit. There are genuinely times when you think she’ll never make it.

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It’s a smartly made biopic that doesn’t try to portray Nyad as a kind and saintly hero. She’s selfish and self-centered. Hard on her friends. Hard on her team. To the point where they are tempted to abandon her at times, but bounce back in the face of her relentless determination.

At the heart of this drama is the relationship between Nyad and Stoll, lifelong friends whose relationship never hits the extremes of cloying cuteness or toxic dysfunction. They see the flaws in one another, and their fights often contain some hard punches. But their mature relationship is one we rarely see in real life, let alone films, and they absorb the punches and continue on their separate paths together.

Nyad ultimately is not a sports suspense story with a nail-biting win at the buzzer. We know she makes it to her destination. Instead, it’s a thoughtful, mature, and rewarding journey about the courage and determination that it takes to be a champion and to inspire the same qualities in others.

Though they racked up multiple nominations during awards season, wins eluded Bening (best actress) and Foster (supporting actress) in the prestige events. Perhaps somewhat tellingly, they were usually the oldest nominees in most contests. They are so good, they make it look almost too easy.

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