Netflix has tried to pre-empt the release of its Oscar-baity biopic Nyad with some carefully polished PR. For many years, figures in the swimming community have called into question the claim by Diana Nyad that she successfully swam from Cuba to Miami, unaided and without a shark cage, at the age of 63. There have been serious doubts about her swim, and the official body that ratifies such events has never endorsed the controversial athlete. Add to that Nyad’s recent dive into transphobia (all in the name of ‘protecting women’s sports’) and you can certainly feel the streaming giant’s fears for its wannabe awards winner. Imagine if the SAG-AFTRA strike continues and they have to send her out to do all the promo.
This extremely conventional biopic stars Annette Bening in the title role, telling a story that does little to bring any true depth or intrigue to an oft-told tale. Nyad herself has spent decades as a motivational speaker, sharing all of the morals and lessons that are at the forefront here. You’ve probably seen the TED Talk. After turning 60, Nyad decided to conquer the one goal she was never able to accomplish while a professional swimmer in her 20s. Nobody has ever done it before. The waters are treacherous. Sharks and box jellyfish plague the seas. No one believes she can accomplish such a startling feat, but by gum, she’s going to make her dream come true.
You don’t need to know much about Nyad’s life or this particular feat to know how Nyad unfolds. This is a biopic, after all, one so forcefully dedicated to the tropes of this thoroughly middlebrow genre that you could set your watch to them. There are plenty of flashbacks to her youth, which includes a mean father who still had time to bestow inspirational advice (and the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her coach, which are affecting but shot like a hazy soap opera.) There are failures then successes, and plenty of soaring music to punctuate the already blunt emotional cues. Nyad herself is dominating, the kind of woman who makes every conversation sound like a segment from her TED Talk, repeating stories and offering little interest in others. Bening, as an actress who excels at playing mannered women teetering on the edge, is a good fit for that always-on energy. It’s a testament to Bening that this Diana still retains an edge of vulnerability because otherwise you would spend the entire movie hoping the sharks get to her. At least Nyad doesn’t try to downplay the fact that its subject could be such an arsehole. One of the best parts of the film comes when it revels in Nyad’s dickishness after a rival is forced to quit their own swim to Miami.
Jodie Foster tries to balance out that energy as Bonnie, Diana’s long-time best friend and trainer, who has spent decades being the unwitting anchor to this force of personality. They bicker like an old married couple, affectionate even when they can’t outright admit to it. It’s a story about dreams, although relegating Bonnie to being the conduit for someone else’s ambition cannot help but weaken what little narrative thrust there is. It’s been a while since Foster was this delightful, and many movies ago since we were reminded of her unique charisma. She’s got those two Oscars for a reason. Still, it is refreshing to see two actresses in their 60s be front and centre in a story that isn’t about men, catfights, or excuses to deride them based on age or gender.
The process-driven parts are the most interesting, as we see Nyad gather her team and try to find ways to deal with the various obstacles of the swim. The always-welcome Rhys Ifans plays John Bartlett, the pessimistic navigator who is an expert on currents in the Florida Straits. He’s the only one of the group we get any sense of character from, as the shark experts and doctors are sidelined with little dialogue beyond pure exposition. Any sense of tension or pure accomplishment in Nyad’s swims are frequently undercut by flashbacks or cuts to archival footage of the real Nyad doing it. Given that this film comes to us courtesy of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the team behind Free Solo, you would think that the one aspect of this rote story they’d be truly inspired by would be the swimming and the chance to recreate it. You definitely see moments of real technical verve amidst the same old stuff, particularly one scene where Nyad faces a jellyfish attack and the sudden brutality of it rings very true. Other bits, such as Diana’s hallucinations as the waters get to her, verge on Zoolander territory.
It’s tough to find anything unique to say about a film so seemingly determined to avoid straying from a well-trodden path. It’s a biopic. Need I say more? Especially for one like this, which is unwilling to dig into the complicated history of this figure and the swim that remains so controversial. We know this movie was never going to call Nyad a liar or even acknowledge the fact that her crossing from Cuba to Florida has not been formally ratified by any recognized marathon swimming governing body. Biopics seldom adhere to history anyway. Netflix wanted a crowd-pleasing three-star movie that could get Bening her long-deserved Oscar and neatly fit into their algorithm for subscribers who like documentaries about miracle feats. When a film has no desire to try and be anything other than sort-of okay, what else is there to say?
Nyad had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere on Netflix on November 3.