The underdog sports movie has a tried and true formula: An unlikely hero tries, and usually initially fails to master their sport, only to persevere and triumph at the end. Nyad, the true story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s mind-boggling 110-mile free swim (no protective shark cage!) from Cuba to Florida, is absolutely an underdog sports movie. But what makes it so refreshing is that Diana Nyad accomplishes this feat at the age of 64, with her best pal Bonnie Stoll coaching and always at her side. What’s this? A movie co-starring two mature women that isn’t about romance, husbands, children, or grandchildren? Shoot, that almost feels as groundbreaking as Nyad’s achievement!
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” When we meet 60-ish Diana Nyad (Annette Bening), she is musing over poet Mary Oliver’s famous line. She’s at an age where she no longer wants regrets, and one thing that has bothered her in the years since she was an elite swimmer in her 20s was that she tried and failed to swim from Cuba to Florida. Her best pal Bonnie (Jodie Foster) is baffled when Diana proclaims that she is going to try again. Before the viewer can say, “Wait, but…” [followed by a litany of concerns], the requisite training montages begin!
In attempt after attempt, Nyad and her crew (with Rhys Ifans’ navigator John Bartlett a standout) adjust to and accommodate the seemingly endless horrors that will cause recreational swimmers like me to wince and even scream. A jellyfish expert comes up with a full-body wetsuit (with accompanying full-face rubber mask right out of a horror movie) to protect her while she swims at night. A glowing underwater rope is dragged alongside her support boat to guide her like a swimming lane so she doesn’t get lost in the dark. Instead of a protective shark cage (which offers the swimmer less drag), she’s tries a new technology that an eager Aussie claims drives the sharks away. But these aren’t even the worst of her problems. There are nasty currents, water temperature issues, storms, and, well, the fact that swimming for days on end with no rest is simply, literally, inhuman. I couldn’t help but shake my head with a hard, “Nope!” at many of the scenes.
If you are unfamiliar with how many attempts and trials Nyad went through on her journey (like I was), the pacing and the format of the storytelling takes a bit getting used to. For instance, early in the film when Nyad is already jumping in the waters of Cuba on her way to Florida, my partner leaned over and whispered, “Are we just going to watch her swim for two hours?” Spliced into the relentless swimming shots are flashbacks that slowly give insight into Nyad’s drive and her personal demons. In an interesting choice by the directors, many of the flashbacks are actual footage of the real (younger) Diana Nyad from news reels and interviews. How well this works is… up for discussion. I initially thought it was kind of jarring (you have to make a leap as Bening doesn’t necessarily look like Nyad), but eventually I got used to it.
What makes Nyad wholly watchable are Annette Bening and Jodie Foster’s performances. Bening’s Nyad is driven, flinty, more than a little self-centered, and frankly kind of unlikeable. Foster’s Bonnie, on the other hand, is the opposite: She balances the friendship by being warm and supportive, a best pal and encouraging coach… and, most importantly, the trusted voice that tells Nyad when to stop. Both women are fantastic. I may not be in
Finally, I have to say that Bening’s commitment to the physical aspect of the role (training in a pool for a year and doing her own swimming in the film) is unabashedly badass and inspiring. Sunburned and chapped from the elements, salt-crusted and bloated from the sea water—she’s ALL in. Now, I have to ask myself: What do I plan to do with my own wild and precious life? Probably not swim for days with killer jellyfish… but I sure hope I think of something!