"Nyad" serves as a reminder of the human spirit's capacity to strive for and achieve the extraordinary. It's a story that, at its core, celebrates the relentless pursuit of personal dreams, even as it glosses over the complexities that make those dreams so compelling.

“Nyad” Review: A Controversial Stroke Through History

The tale of Diana Nyad, whose epic swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 sparked both awe and skepticism, seems ripe for cinematic exploration. Yet, the film “Nyad” by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, while aiming for the heart, misses the mark in capturing the true essence of this complex story.

The narrative of “Nyad” unfolds with the backdrop of Diana Nyad’s own memoir, a choice that inherently accepts her account of events at face value. Directors Vasarhelyi and Chin, known for their gripping documentaries like “Free Solo” and “The Rescue,” venture into scripted storytelling by chronicling Nyad’s grueling 110-mile swim from Havana to Key West. However, the film sidesteps the murky waters of Nyad’s past allegations of deceit and the debates over the legitimacy of her famed feat, opting instead for a straightforward tale of triumph.

The film’s portrayal of Diana Nyad, played by Annette Bening, begins in a moment of introspection as she faces her 60th birthday, feeling like a “bag of bones” and wrestling with the notion that her days of athletic glory may be behind her. “Where’s the excellence?” she questions, voicing her frustrations to her confidante Bonnie Stoll, portrayed by Jodie Foster. At a birthday celebration that Stoll hosts, Diana’s self-centric monologues foreshadow a narrative that will focus more on personal glory than the nuanced truths of her journey.

Despite the undeniable achievement of completing the swim, the film glosses over the persistent doubts about whether she had clandestine assistance. These suspicions were fueled by her seemingly superhuman speed during certain legs of the swim, which her camp attributed to favorable currents—a defense not without its detractors. Yet, “Nyad” chooses not to dive into these contentious waters, presenting a story of unexamined heroism rather than a balanced account of an athlete’s controversial legacy.

Diana Nyad’s Quest for Renewed Greatness

The opening of the film serves as a testament to Diana Nyad’s storied past in marathon swimming and the fame that ensued. As she steps into her seventies, Diana, who has a history as a sports journalist for networks like ABC’s Wide World of Sports, yearns for a challenge that reignites her competitive spirit. It’s a familiar challenge she eyes: the Cuba to Florida swim, a feat that eluded her at 28. Despite the skepticism from her friend Bonnie, Diana’s indomitable will to conquer the unconquered sees her persuading Bonnie to coach her.

Diana’s tenacity is the driving force as she begins to assemble a support team, including the stoic boat captain John Bartlett, played by Rhys Ifans. The team’s preparations are meticulous, from devising navigational aids like a luminescent cable alongside John’s vessel to strategizing against the perils of the sea—sharks, stingrays, and the dreaded man-of-wars.

As the day of the swim approaches, Diana’s self-assurance is palpable. She’s seen bolstering her resolve with grand declarations to anyone within earshot, from young admirers to seasoned seafarers, claiming a boundless belief in herself and a soul-deep pact to achieve the impossible. Annette Bening’s portrayal of Diana is unapologetically intense; she embodies a character whose self-absorption is as vast as the ocean she intends to conquer. The film attempts to frame Diana’s relentless self-focus as a quirky aspect of her unwavering resolve, yet it often comes across as overbearing, even to the point of alienating those closest to her, including Bonnie, who candidly criticizes Diana’s “me-centric” rhetoric.

The Resilience Behind Nyad’s Ambition

In the film, Diana Nyad’s relentless drive is tempered by the presence of her loyal friend Bonnie, whose belief in Diana’s dream is as unwavering as it is tested by Diana’s self-centered nature. Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Bonnie shines with an authentic charisma that Diana herself seems to lack. The dynamic between the two is a highlight, with Bonnie’s candid confrontations and steadfast encouragement providing a counterbalance to Diana’s often grating personality.

Despite the friction, Bonnie, along with the ever-patient captain John, remains committed to the journey. The film captures the essence of their friendship and shared adventure, even as Diana’s initial attempts at the swim are thwarted by the unpredictable sea and its stinging inhabitants. These repeated failures, while they underscore her determination, also raise doubts about her capability to achieve what has never been done before—especially as the film leaves viewers in the dark about whether such a swim has ever been completed without the safety of a shark cage.

The directors, Vasarhelyi and Chin, have a penchant for dramatic visuals, often framing Nyad from below as she cuts through the water, the sun casting her in a heroic light. Interspersed with these moments are flashbacks to Diana’s youth, revealing the origins of her swimming passion and the darker chapters of her life, including betrayal and assault by a trusted coach. These glimpses into her past are meant to add depth but sometimes disrupt the narrative flow, feeling as forced as the rest of the film’s formulaic structure.

With a runtime that mirrors the endurance required for Diana’s swim, the film occasionally drags, its predictability diluting the impact of the story’s natural drama. Yet, Diana’s bold proclamations of destiny and the directors’ choice of a classic soundtrack featuring icons like Janis Joplin and Simon & Garfunkel, inject a sense of timelessness and cultural resonance into her quest.

Rhys Ifans, as Captain Bartlett, embodies the gruff pragmatism of a seasoned sailor, while Foster’s Bonnie oscillates between concern and encouragement. As Diana presses on, her belief in her ability to complete the swim—and in doing so, affirm her self-worth—remains unshaken, a testament to the human spirit’s capacity for self-belief and the pursuit of personal legends.

The Evolution of a Champion

As “Nyad” progresses, the narrative shifts to highlight a pivotal transformation in Diana’s character. She begins to recognize the value of her support system, particularly Bonnie and John, acknowledging that her solitary pursuit of greatness is, in fact, a collective effort. This revelation, however, unfolds with a sense of inevitability that feels more scripted than sincere, as if checking a box in the hero’s journey rather than a genuine change of heart.

The film touches only lightly on Diana’s tendency to embellish her stories, a trait pointed out by Bonnie in a rare moment that hints at the complexity of Diana’s character. Beyond this fleeting acknowledgment, “Nyad” opts to present Diana as a paragon of determination, a woman who defies the societal constraints placed on her gender and age. This portrayal, while uplifting, sidesteps the more contentious and intriguing elements of her story, reducing a multifaceted individual to a more simplistic archetype.

In its reluctance to delve into the more controversial facets of Diana’s life, the film risks being perceived as a self-congratulatory exercise rather than a nuanced biopic. Even within the confines of its chosen narrative path, “Nyad” struggles to rise above the tropes of inspirational cinema, often resorting to emotional manipulation rather than authentic storytelling.

Despite these shortcomings, “Nyad” serves as a reminder of the human spirit’s capacity to strive for and achieve the extraordinary. It’s a story that, at its core, celebrates the relentless pursuit of personal dreams, even as it glosses over the complexities that make those dreams so compelling.

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"Nyad" serves as a reminder of the human spirit's capacity to strive for and achieve the extraordinary. It's a story that, at its core, celebrates the relentless pursuit of personal dreams, even as it glosses over the complexities that make those dreams so compelling."Nyad" Review: A Controversial Stroke Through History