Nyad (2023)

Nyad (2023)

PG-13

netflix

For all its flaws, this sometimes-cliched, sometimes-subversive sports drama is undeniably stirring

7.7

Movie

Switzerland, United States of America
English
Drama, History
2023
ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI, FEMALE DIRECTOR
Anna Harriette Pittman, Annette Bening, Carolyn McCormick
121 min

TLDR

Credit to the cast for not corpsing every time Annette Bening puts on that ridiculous-looking anti-jellyfish mask.

What it's about

Thirty years after her first attempt at completing the record-breaking 110-mile, two-day-long unassisted swim from Cuba to Florida, 61-year-old champion swimmer Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) decides to brave the gargantuan task — plus sharks, jellyfish, and powerful currents — once again.

The take

After winning Oscars for their documentary work, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin make their narrative feature debut with Nyad. The move to narrative fiction isn’t a monumental jump for the director duo, whose cinematic documentaries (among them Free Solo and The Rescue) play like nerve-shredding action thrillers and intense human dramas. Nor does Nyad’s subject — another extreme feat of human daring and endurance — make this feel a million miles away from their most famous works.

The most obvious departures from the directors’ documentary strengths — Nyad’s flashbacks and hallucination scenes, for example — do sometimes highlight their newness to narrative filmmaking, however. These scenes feel shallow and therefore disconnected from the movie’s otherwise deeper treatment of its subject, just as the performances dip into outsized cliches at times. Mostly, though, Nyad manages to float above the trap of trying too hard to be an inspirational sports drama thanks to its confrontation of Diana’s prickly personality. This flips the film’s perspective onto that of Diana’s team (including her coach and former girlfriend, played by Jodie Foster), who ultimately suffer the consequences of her stubbornness. That refusal to submit to hagiographic impulses gives the film a documentary-like edge of truth, making the rousing moments here feel genuinely earned.

What stands out

Instead of framing Diana’s limitless self-confidence as heroic, Nyad explores the destructive effect her assertiveness has on her team, thereby making it an obstacle, not a superpower. It even makes something of a joke out of her self-aggrandizing tendency to refer to herself in Greek mythology terms — another self-aware touch that makes this feel less like a by-the-numbers sports biopic and more like a film genuinely invested in grappling with the raw truth of the story. Though it never completely pulls that off — there are too many Netflix-isms here to allow for that — Nyad does subvert the glossiest tropes of inspirational sports dramas, making it an unexpectedly thoughtful addition to a cliche-ridden genre.

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