I didn’t know what a NYAD was, but it’s the last name of a real life person, Diana Nyad, a marathon swimmer who broke a bunch of distance records in the ‘70s and in 1978 tried to swim from Havana to Key West. She made it about 76 miles in 42 hours but had to quit.
Now it’s 2010, she’s played by Annette Bening (MARS ATTACKS!), she’s been retired since her 30th birthday, and she’s just hitting her 60th. She spends her time with Bonnie (Jodie Foster, HOTEL ARTEMIS), they seem like a couple at first, but they’re just best friends. Quirky lesbian pals. Since she’s been angsty about aging, Bonnie convinces her to get back into exercise, and she swims for the first time in years. That goes well, so she announces out of the blue that she’s going to try the Cuba swim again. Bonnie is kinda like jesus christ lady you cannot be serious and then somehow agrees to be her coach.
This is an inspirational sports story about never giving up, following your dreams, even when they might be impossible and you might be too old. It hits all the notes a movie like that is supposed to, and they’re pleasing notes. But I think it has an extra thing going for it in that it’s not corny about it in the usual way. Most sports movies portray a drive to be the best as a quality for us all to be in awe of. Here it’s more like that funny thing Diana does that makes her Diana. At the beginning when she’s grumbling about kids these days and how much the world sucks now she suddenly blurts out “WHERE IS THE EXCELLENCE?” Funniest thing I’ve seen in a while. Definitely a new thing I will be quoting.
Diana is a really funny character because she’s a grump, a weirdo, kind of a jerk, both infuriating and lovable to the people who know her. So when she’s talking about doing this she comes across not as an inspirational figure, but a crazy person. Even if she turns out to be right, you can’t blame anyone for not believing in her. No one had done it before, including her when she was in much better shape. It’s more inspirational in a “you can do crazy shit in this life” sort of way than in an “I’m going to do something like that!” one, because it seems just absolutely unreplicatable.
I vaguely remember this happening, didn’t know the details. And it’s a more interesting story than I would’ve guessed – more of a problem solving situation than I realized. In a way they’re like explorers, doing something that has little precedent, so they have to figure out the methods themselves. First of all, swimming for over 48 hours is an activity the human body and mind aren’t designed for, so they go in knowing Diana will be hallucinating. She prepares mentally with a “playlist” of favorite songs in her mind and she knows their lengths and multiples to estimate how much time has passed. Also she needs someone to follow in a boat, and she manages to find the perfect navigator, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans, HUMAN NATURE, FORMULA 51, PASSION PLAY), who has strong opinions about how shitty her navigator was the first time, what she’ll need to do to beat currents, and how to keep her close to the boat so he guide her to stay exactly on course. By the way, she insists on not using a shark cage this time (“that counts as assistance and I don’t want an asterisk by my name”) so she hires some guys with some new tech for scaring off any sharks that might mistake her for a seal and try to eat her. But their idea could be bullshit, she doesn’t know.
Also she needs a medic. And funding. And Bonnie feeds her noodles and gives her fluids through a tube and it’s mentioned that yes, she’ll have to take dumps in the ocean. (It is not depicted, so that can’t be her Oscar clip.)
But it’s still maybe impossible what she wants to do, so we see her try and fail and change their approach and find another window when the weather is right and the team is available. And they learn that her route is plagued by deadly box jellyfish, and have to recruit an expert named Angel (Jenna Yi, Only Murders in the Building) who eventually helps build a crazy alien-looking latex jellyfish protection suit for her. I mean, this is a whole big production doing this swim. Takes alot of planning and preparation.
Diana is just so god damn stubborn, it starts to seem like this is not do-able, and like she’s gonna die trying. The team has to question what she expects of them and what they’re willing to live with, and she has to win them back in her own indirect Diana Nyad sort of way (including continuing to train with a different, way less invested team). The broad character arcs are pretty much what you expect, but in a very satisfying way.
One thing I thought was funny – and I’m sure this is real – when they (spoiler) finally get there she’s very weak, there’s a crowd waiting on the beach, and Bonnie and the team have to wave them back and explain that she has to be able to walk completely out of the water of her own accord, so if anyone touches her “it won’t count.” According to who? My assumption was that these were arbitrary rules Diana set for herself, because it would take the most miserably petty motherfucker who ever lived to say “Yeah, great job I guess, but next time try it without some kid trying to give you a high five before you’d made it all the way off the beach.” I figured only Diana could possibly give a shit about something so meaningless, but then I read something about people in the marathon swimming community accusing her of cheating (something the filmmakers contend they’ve heavily researched and there’s no fuckin way) and I realized yeah, there probly are all kinds of arcane rules that other swimmers are opinionated about. But even if not, I bet Diana would insist on starting over. So if it happened I’m pretty sure Bonnie and John would beat that kid’s skull in with a piece of driftwood. Let those two rest.
Stylistically most of NYAD is pretty straight forward, and seemingly shot on real water for the most part, not too many cg fish scenes or anything. There are some storytelling flourishes, the most interesting I think is starting with footage of the real Nyad in the ‘70s, the reverse of the usual biopic formula where they stick the real footage during the end credits. (Although they do that too.) I was less into the way childhood flashbacks pop into her mind as she’s swimming sometimes. It’s interesting to learn about her fascination with Cuba coming from her adopted father, and later there’s more important information conveyed, so maybe it’s necessary. I just think those scenes feel less real than the rest in a way that clashes. Same with the shark POV shots. But those are nitpicks.
What this left me with most was a love for these two characters and the actors who play them. I’m sure it was a physically difficult role for Bening (she should’ve done an AVATAR afer all that swim training) but I especially love this characterization, this voice and comical lack of etiquette, she’s just great. And I have to say, when she was exhausted, confused, hallucinating, she eerily reminded me of my mom during her illness, so I think she really went there. Foster as Bonnie is a more normal role, but it’s so great to see this legend just being the cool, supportive best friend, not her usual type of intensity. It only underlines what a treasure Jodie Foster is to see her that way. I wish we all had a Bonnie, or were one.
NYAD is the first non-documentary by directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, husband and wife team known for FREE SOLO. It’s written by Julia Cox (Recovery Road, The Last Tycoon), adapted from Nyad’s 2015 memoir Find a Way. It’s only on Netflix, so I’m glad Bening and Foster both got Oscar nominations, because if they hadn’t it would’ve dissipated from the public consciousness and lost all its power like Freddy Krueger when people aren’t scared of him. WHERE IS THE EXCELLENCE!?*
*Costume designer Kelli Jones was nominated for “Excellence in Contemporary Film” at the Costume Designers Guild Awards, so I guess we’ll find out where the excellence is in February.