Review: NYAD — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Annette Bening gives the bravest performance of her long career as the maniacally driven, unforgivably selfish, yet frustratingly appealing distance swimmer Diana Nyad.

Annette Bening in NYAD (Liz Parkinson/Netflix)

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⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute

Stars: Annette Bening, Jodie Foster

Writers: Julia Cox, Diana Nyad

Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

In Theaters; Streaming on Netflix November 3

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival


Will someone please give this woman an Oscar?

Annette Bening has been robbed on Academy Award night so many times (The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia — don’t get me started) she should really file for a protective order from the LA Superior Court.

So, it’s frustrating to think she might be overlooked for the bravest performance of her long career: as the maniacally driven, unforgivably selfish, yet frustratingly appealing Diana Nyad, the woman who, after numerous near-fatal attempts, swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013 at the age of 64.

The film’s quirky title — the swimmer’s name, spelled in bold capital letters — is no empty artifice. To Nyad’s mind, the only thing that matters, in the end, is NYAD. Bening’s Nyad is grumpy, reckless, and thinks nothing of endangering others in pursuit of her ambitions without so much as a thank you. The world, to her mind, exists to be in service to her whims.

Yet despite that legion of truly awful qualities, Bening imbues Nyad with almost subliminal vulnerability. Be it an unexpected flash of despair in her usually piercing eyes or a fleeting recognition of her own miserable ridiculousness, Bening draws us, almost against our will, to this singularly difficult woman.

It helps immeasurably that Jodie Foster contributes a truly lovely performance as Nyad’s oldest (perhaps only) friend, Bonnie Stoll. If Bonnie — a woman with a reservoir of patience so vast even Nyad could not swim across it — can find something to like and even love in this troublesome woman, then maybe we can, too.

Beginning at age 60, Nyad — a world-renowned distance swimmer — attempted five times to cross the Florida Strait, an effort that consumed hundreds of hours battling open water. The challenge in making a movie about a lone figure embarking on a marathon mission is in conveying to an audience the essence of crushing, single-minded tedium without boring them in the process. It’s been done before: Remember Jimmy Stewart flying solo across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis and Spencer Tracy dragging that fish across the Caribbean in The Old Man and the Sea and Sly Stallone pulling truck tires in Rocky.

Luckily, co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have been here before: They won an Oscar for their dizzying documentary, Free Solo, following climber Alex Honnold as he repeatedly tried to clamber up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.

As in that film, the trick in NYAD is to surround the laser-focused — and socially clueless — central figure with an endearing supporting cast. Besides Foster’s Bonnie, we are also introduced to, among others, her navigator (Rhys Ifans), an old salt who knows the strait’s tricky currents as well as he knows his way to the nearest dockside bar, and a university expert (Jeena Yi) whose expertise is in, of all things, box jellyfish (which do a really nasty number on Nyad during one of her failed attempts).

The actual team that surrounded Nyad on her successful swim numbered about 35; the film wisely pares that number down to about a half-dozen, including two kayakers armed with shark repellant and a virtually wordless skipper (Karly Rothenberg).

Still, NYAD could have counted a cast of thousands and still not overshadowed Bening as the film’s unlikeably lovable anti-heroine; a woman who faces the world with squinty eyes and pursed lips, yet one who inspires us, like her exasperated old friend, to sigh, shrug our shoulders, and follow her into the churning seas of life.

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