‘Nyad’ Review: A Motivational Tale With Tepid Direction

Nyad serves as a touching examination of the profound impact that support from friends and team members can have on uplifting spirits, revealing the transformative power of camaraderie in the face of daunting challenges.

Nyad

Embarking on the pursuit of goals is a timeless and universal endeavor that transcends age limitations. While some may argue that age hinders the realization of dreams, it is crucial to dispel this misconception and recognize that age should not impede our aspirations. Nyad is a sports drama that illustrates the steadfast resoluteness of a resilient woman in her sixties, determined to resurrect a previous, thwarted aspiration—the continuous swim from Cuba to Florida. Directed by the dynamic documentary filmmaking duo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, renowned for their Academy and BAFTA-winning documentary Free Solo (2018), which chronicles Alex Honnold’s daring free solo climb in 2017 on El Capitan, a towering 3,000-foot-high rock formation in Yosemite Valley, California. In their debut feature film, they draw significant inspiration from their protagonist’s almost irrationally optimistic outlook and relentless drive. The narrative unfolds as a poignant exploration of the protagonist’s obstinate zeal deeply rooted in the realm of long-distance swimming, shedding light on the astonishingly arduous nature of the journey. The film also serves as a touching examination of the profound impact that support from friends and team members can have on uplifting spirits, revealing the transformative power of camaraderie in the face of daunting challenges.

In 2010, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening), now aged sixty, embarks on a monumental quest to achieve what had eluded her three decades earlier—a grueling 110-mile nonstop swim from Cuba to Florida. Determined to conquer this arduous challenge, Diana enlists the support of her closest allies, including her best friend and former partner, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), and navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans). Despite encountering daunting obstacles, including treacherous ocean currents and painful encounters with box jellyfish, Diana is compelled to persist in her pursuit. Her tenacity is fueled not only by her unwavering spirit but also by a painful past marked by trauma and abuse. Three years later, Diana makes her fifth attempt. More favorable currents aid her progress, but danger looms as a shark approaches, testing the limits of the Shark Shield. With the crew’s swift intervention, disaster is averted, allowing Diana to press on. As Diana’s body shows signs of weariness, Bonnie jumps into the water, urging her to summon one last reserve of strength. With the coastline of Key West in sight, the crew cheers on Diana, who pushes through the fatigue. On September 2, 2013, Diana Nyad emerged triumphant on the shores of Key West, greeted by an exuberant crowd of spectators and well-wishers. 

Nyad

The film consistently portrays the unyielding strength of Nyad’s will, highlighting her resolute determination in the face of formidable challenges. Her unwavering commitment to press forward, unfazed by external obstacles, possesses a uniquely captivating charm, eliciting a deep emotional reaction that can even bring tears. Specific sequences skillfully reveal the unwavering bond between Nyad and Bonnie, capturing touching instances of their bond. Despite Nyad’s reluctance to celebrate her birthday, Bonnie orchestrates a surprise party. Bonnie’s decision to resume Nyad’s training after the demise of her abusive coach, and the climactic scene on the Key West beach, where Nyad collapses into Bonnie’s arms with both ankles out of the water, serves as a powerful testament to the depth of their extraordinary bond. Their relationship, blending the roles of handler and swimmer, is a winsome fusion of friendship and family—a fabric interwoven with strands of mutual support and steadfast commitment. In Diana’s numerous attempts to cross the challenging Florida Straits, viewers are taken through nail-biting tension and precarious moments. Setbacks, such as encounters with sharks and jellyfish, along with unpredictable weather, heighten the suspense of the viewing experience. Each swim follows a distinct dramatic trajectory, creating a natural rhythm that builds tension and anticipation. This enriches the plot development, ultimately contributing to the rise and fall, culminating in the triumphant conclusion of the tale.

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However, not every aspect of the film seamlessly resonates. The recurring flashbacks to Diana’s childhood, while aiming to provide depth, come across as trite, disrupting the pacing and suggesting that the filmmakers may have tapped out their creative reservoir. The inclusion of Diana Nyad’s backstory, involving her sexual abuse by a high school swim coach, is a narrative element that, unfortunately, fails to significantly enhance the overall impact of the film. Despite recognizing its significance as a pivotal aspect of Nyad’s life, the connection between the abuse and her quest for greatness remains unconvincing. The suggestion that this traumatic experience fuels her pursuit lacks a compelling narrative thread, leaving the audience questioning its relevance to the broader story. Despite the film’s intention to delve into Nyad’s life story, this subplot appears as a disjointed element that doesn’t seamlessly integrate into the film’s overarching theme of resilience and triumph over adversity. While an uplifting tale, the film struggles to integrate Diana’s childhood abuse fully. The direction falters in delivering a compelling dramatic momentum, suggesting that the screenplay, adapted by Julia Cox, falls short of leveraging her writing prowess to adeptly structure the narrative. The film seems to struggle in seamlessly and innovatively weaving together each plot point and twist into a cohesive and engaging storyline. Nevertheless, the overarching message is clear: Diana emerges triumphant, defying cruelty and abuse, inspiring everyone with her unwavering determination. 

Nyad

Annette Bening portrays Nyad as a resilient, almost tenacious individual, refusing to yield even after numerous unsuccessful attempts. With a sometimes cranky yet always authoritative attitude, she brings a robust and uncompromising presence to the character. Jodie Foster, as Bonnie, emotively cajoles and exhorts Nyad in the dual roles of coach and best friend. Throughout the crests and troughs of Nyad’s journey, her depiction serves as an exemplification of steadfast companionship, exhibiting unwavering support untouched by any duplicity. Rhys Ifans, as Robert Shaw, the seasoned and sagacious captain, plays a pivotal role in realizing Nyad’s dream by adeptly navigating the crew through perilous waters filled with sharks, jellyfish, and unpredictable weather.

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Claudio Miranda’s cinematography skillfully encapsulates Nyaad’s struggles and tribulations with a realistic and unfiltered approach, seamlessly transitioning between the gritty present and the dreamy, energetic, and dark occurrences in the of flashbacks. The underwater and aerial shots, both breathtaking, add a touch of visual poetry to the narrative. Christopher Tellefsen’s editing choreographs a rhythmic progression, scene after scene, smoothly guiding us through the protagonist’s headstrong pursuit with finesse. Grant Elder’s sound design captures the serene stillness of the protagonist’s home with a calming touch and contrasts it with the wild, untamed sea through a dynamic flow. Alexandre Desplat’s musical prowess elevates the film, adding a layer of depth and resonance to each scene, making the audience not just viewers but active participants in the emotional voyage the film undertakes. 

Nyad is a film that provides encouragement and inspiration, yet the translation from the autobiographical Find a Way to the screen lacks the fervor and thrills needed to transform it into a truly memorable piece of work.

Nyad
‘Nyad’ Review: A Motivational Tale With Tepid Direction
2.5

Dipankar Sarkar

Dipankar Sarkar is a film critic, regularly contributing reviews, interviews, and essays to various publications all over the world like Upperstall.com and Vaguevisages.com. He was one of the panelists for the selection of world cinema at the 27th International Film Festival of Kerala in 2022. He is a Research Fellowship from the NFAI, Pune India. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.

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