Nyad (2024.3, Disappointing , Tank )

Despite great acting by Bening and Foster, Nyad fails to develop sympathetic characters and an interesting story. (3*)

Nyad – Snapshot

 Nyad may tell the story of long distance swimmer Diana Nyad swimming from Cuba to Florida.  As appealing as the film wants to be, it fails in so many ways.  Watch it only if you like Bening or Foster! (3*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Netflix

Rent/Buy:  (Nowhere)

Nyad – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (2) / Oscar Wins (0) :

Leading Actress (Annette Bening)

Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster)

Nyad scored a 4 on my Oscar Quality Index, ranking it eleventh among this year’s 24 general interest nominees. Even with two world class actresses, it did NOT receive a Best Picture nomination and it failed to bring home an Oscar, just like our first two reviewed movie, Killers of the Flower Moon and Maestro.   So there’s lots to talk about:

Nyad did not receive a single technical/minor nomination, but it is not because it lacked talent in those areas.  For example, 529 people are credited for work in the visual effects department and that will surprise you given the small scale of the movie.  What you may not know, though, is that all of the water scenes were filmed in a water tank – where conditions can be controlled (and liability limited).  All of the “ocean effects” were digitally added requiring a substantial team to create ocean waves, lightning storms, and threatening ocean wildlife.  I did not go through the 529 people to identify Oscar nominees, but I have to believe there might have been a few including some who worked on nominated films like Avatar: The Way of Water.

For sound, there were at least two prior Oscar nominees.  Pud Cusack was nominated for his work on The Mask of Zorro. And Tom Fleischman won the Oscar for his work on Hugo, and received nominations for The Aviator, Gangs of New York, The Silence of the Lambs, and Reds. Very surprising, to me anyway, was that the original score was composed by Alexandre Desplat who has won Oscars for The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and received seven other nominations.  Clearly the production didn’t skimp on the aural element which is subtly important in any movie, especially those involving nature.  In Nyad, though neither sound nor music received Oscar recognition.

Film Editor Christopher Tellefsen received an earlier nomination for Moneyball and Cinematographer Claudio Miranda won the Oscar for Life of Pi (also involving a lot of filming on water) and was nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But, again, no nominations for Nyad.

The two nominations the film did receive were for its two principal actors, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, both of whom did terrific work in this film. It is not the first nomination for either one.  Ms. Bening has four prior nominations, perhaps most famously for American Beauty and The Kids Are All Right.  Jodie Foster received her first nomination, at the tender age of 14, for her outstanding performance in Taxi Driver.  Foster was reportedly reading by age 3, fluent in multiple languages by age 18, graduated from Yale magna cum laude and has a reported IQ of 132 making her one of the smartest people in the industry!  Unsurprisingly it is her intelligence that drove her to Oscar winning performances in The Accused and, especially, in The Silence of the Lambs.

Nyad did not receive any nominations for writing or directing and, really, it didn’t deserve any.  Julia Cox wrote the screenplay, based on Diana Nyad’s book “Find a Way”.  This isn’t a documentary, but rather another “biopic” based on a book that attempts to tell a true story.  Ms. Cox has done some TV episode scripts, but this is her first feature film.

It is also the first narrative feature film for the directing duo Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.  The two, a married couple with a family, are best known for winning an Oscar for their documentary feature Free Solo.  If you recall, that film follows the free climb of Alex Honnold, without ropes, up the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite.  In my review of that film I appreciated the courage and skill of Mr. Honnold, but wondered why the movie deserved an Oscar when the filmmakers simply recorded what happened.

In Nyad, there are similarities to a sports documentary like Free Solo, especially in telling the story of a major sporting event, but unlike the documentary, they weren’t actually there following the real Diana Nyad – they instead recreated the events.  And the re-creations were in a water tank with professional actresses.  Frankly, Bening and Foster more or less directed themselves and Chin and Vasarhelyi went along for the ride. 

Nyad – Related Movies

Free Solo (Directing, Sound)

The Silence of The Lambs (Foster, Sound)

The Accused, Taxi Driver (Foster)

Little Women (19) (Score, Sound)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Score, Cinematography)

The Shape of Water; The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs (Score)

Hugo, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Irishman, BlacKkKlansman (Sound)

Life of Pi, Top Gun: Maverick (Cinematography)

A Quiet Place (Editing)

Mank, Barbie (Makeup)

Nyad – What Others Think

Both the viewing public and the critics pretty much have the same opinion of Nyad – it’s an OK film but certainly not great.  Overall it ranks in the bottom half of this year’s 24 general interest films, with audiences rating it slightly higher than critics.

Critics generally placed it firmly in the sports genre.  Christy Lemire (RogerEbert) wrote “It’s a pretty standard story of sports uplifting, a familiar tale of triumph over adversity.”  And then “Nyad might not be the greatest film about that achievement, but it’s sufficiently entertaining.”  Amy Nicholson (New York Times) surprisingly gave it a Critics Pick focused on the Diana character saying “Diana wants our respect – and by the end of the movie she’s earned it.”  And later “While she’s one of the prickliest protagonists you’ll see this year, she’s so raw and earnest and unapologetically herself that you adore her anyway – from the safe distance of the screen.”

Nearly all critics found the best thing about the movie to be the acting from Bening and Foster and, especially the chemistry between them.  Nicholson wrote that “Bening…shows us a woman willing to endure Hell.  I’ve never seen a performance with this little vanity in service of a character drowning in her own ego.”  She found the scenes between the two of them “capture decades of camaraderie in effortless shorthand.”  Marya E. Gates (RogerEbert) lauded Foster saying she “brings a wonderful complexity to Bonnie, who loves Nyad dearly but has had to put up with her more diffuse personality traits for decades, including her narcissism, aversion to mediocrity, and general lack of chill.”  And Lemire chimed in “the two veteran actresses have a natural, crackling chemistry with each other and they truly make you feel the depth and complexity of their decades-long bond.”

Nyad – Special Mention

Diana Nyad – As the main character in this movie, and a real person, I tried to dig up some basic biography, some of which is touched on in the movie.  (I am guessing there are more details in her books, but I have not read them.)  She was born in 1949 in New York City as Diana Sneed.  Her parents divorced a couple years later and her mother married a man named Aristotle Nyad, which, apparently, was just one of many aliases he used.  (The meaning of the name Nyad crops up a couple of times in the film). He did adopt her and they moved to Florida.  There she enrolled at Pine Crest,  a private school, and started swimming under the coaching of Olympian Jack Nelson.  Nyad and several of her teammates accused Nelson of sexual assault and those events work their way into the movie.

Nyad graduated from Pine Crest in 1967, and entered Emory University, but was kicked out for jumping out a fourth floor dormitory window (with a parachute).  She switched to Lake Forest College in Illinois and became interested in marathon swimming.  She finally graduated in 1973 majoring in English and French and enrolled in a PhD program in comparative literature at New York University. Since then, she has written four books and several articles for various publications including NPR, New York Times, and Newsweek.  She has worked as a sportscaster on several radio and television shows.  She has had an interesting life and career.

Her Swims! – Obviously swimming long distances, fast, is something very important to Diana Nyad and so it is important to look at what she has accomplished.

In 1974 she set a women’s world record of 8:11 (8 hrs, 11 min) in the 22-mile Gulf of Naples race, her first major win.  Five years later, at 30 years old, she set a world distance record by swimming 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida, without a protective shark cage in 27.5 hours.  That was, supposedly, her last competitive swim and she retired.

Then there are the Manhattan swims.  In 1975, at age 26 Nyad set a record for the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan at 7:57.  While that does appear to be a course record, at the time, it was not the first swim around the island.  The first swim was by a man in 1915 and a thirteen year old bested him a year later by two hours.  Ten other swimmers circled Manhattan before Nyad did.  Since Nyad, multiple swimmers have beat her record including a 5:44 swim by (woman) Rondi Davies in 2011.  The Manhattan island records now include two and three times around the island and the “reverse (or clockwise) circumnavigation”, which is much harder as you swim upstream in the Hudson River.  (At age 57, a friend of mine, Lori Carena, did the same exact swim as Nyad did in a more-than-respectable 8:57.   A listing of everyone who has done this swim is available at longswims.com )

As grueling as swimming around Manhattan might sound, that is not what Nyad is about.  The event here is almost four times as long and involves ocean swimming, not relatively mild river flows.  The distance from Cuba to Key West Florida is 103 miles; but, realistically, if you are swimming it might be difficult to keep a straight line going so the distance is likely longer.  In an open ocean environment you are dealing with real possibilities of difficult weather; ocean swells, currents and wind; blistering heat; and, of course, sea life like sharks, jellyfish, and man-of-war monsters!  It is a sports event at an entirely different level.

As the movie makes clear, Nyad first attempted the swim in 1978 at an age of 28.  Swimming in a metal shark cage, she encountered strong winds and 8-foot swells that pushed her off course and caused her to swim into the cage barriers.  After 42 hours and 76 miles, not in a straight line, they called the swim off.  The movie picks up several decades later when Nyad decides she wants to try it again!

Did She Really Do It? – Obviously the movie wants you to believe that Diana Nyad actually accomplished this amazing swim and the movie does make you want to believe it.  But, unfortunately, there are some doubts.

Probably the best site to go to if you want a negative opinion, with evidence, would be nyadfactcheck.com .  I really don’t know what to make of all the counter arguments listed there except to say that they are plausible, at least based on what was recounted in the film and what I’ve been able to find elsewhere.  Although I don’t find all of the counter arguments to be persuasive there are a couple of points that are worth considering.  Why, for example, is there no documentation for a critical 5.5 hours on the last night?  Her observers, who had earlier in the swim carefully made journal entries, suddenly stop writing anything for 5.5 hours which, as portrayed in the movie, was a time of rough seas and a very tired – and hallucinating – swimmer.  Part of that, of course, is because her “official observers” were well intentioned, but untrained people who didn’t exactly know what their responsibilities were.  It also doesn’t help that, since Havana to Key West isn’t exactly a standard swim event, there weren’t any officially established “rules” governing the swim, so how would you know if you broke them or not?  One rule Nyad imposed was that no-one could touch her, and yet, in a CNN interview, she apparently admitted that she was “touched” during the swim.  Was that “touch” material enough to affect the swimmer?  No-one really knows.  It seems that most of the video during the swim has somehow managed to disappear and there are conflicting reports among the 40 or so people who were there about what actually happened during the missing 5.5 hours.  As it stands right now, her swim has not been formally certified and the Guinness Book of World Records has revoked her claim.

And I guess I have a problem with the claim that it is the first “unaided” swim, even if she did do it.  In 1978 Walter Poenisch (65 years old) did the swim with a shark cage.  And in 1997, 22-year old Susie Maroney also did the same swim with a shark cage.  So Nyad’s record comes down to her doing it without a shark cage.  But there’s the rub.  She did have a shark cage! It was just a very different one than what was used earlier.  As the movie will show – she had protection; it just wasn’t metal.  So why does that make it “unaided”?

As my friend Lori said “There is controversy surrounding this swim in the open water swim community. It was not properly witnessed and verified.  Many do not believe she completed this swim.”  And we have to add that Nyad herself has indicated that she has, sometimes, exaggerated her accomplishments.  In 2023 (after the release of this movie) she is quoted as saying “Am I embarrassed to have inflated my own record when my record is pretty good on its own? Yes, it makes me cringe.”

Nyad – Michael’s Moments

I tried in the last section to present information that might help in evaluating the veracity of the claims made in Nyad.  In this section I want to sort of dismiss all of that and evaluate the film as a movie.  As the filmmaker Vasarhelyi said “our film is not about a record…It’s about how a woman woke up at 60 and realized she wasn’t finished, even though the world may be finished with her.”  Nyad is not billed as a “documentary”, rather it is a “narrative” which, ultimately, means that we shouldn’t judge it by its truthfulness, but rather whether it conveys a meaningful story well!

Clearly the sympathetic acting from Annette Bening and Jodie Foster and the obvious chemistry between them is probably the biggest reason to see this movie.  Bening’s willingness to totally eschew any sense of glamour in her attempt to become the character is humbling.  And Foster’s restrained emotion in her facial expressions sum up the conflicted feelings. And the movie does keep up an admirable level of tension as we revisit portions of Nyad’s last four attempts to complete the same swim. 

Still, there is a reason this movie wasn’t nominated in any other categories.  The story is, in a certain sense incoherent and the characters, aside from Diana, Bonnie, and, arguably, navigator John Bartlett are completely undeveloped.  At the end, Nyad suggests that “it takes a team”, but the movie doesn’t develop that – it is a cast of two with some extras!

It could also have been a better film if Diana was a more appealing character.  While we certainly want to admire her drive, especially at her age, to do something everyone believes is impossible, everything about the attempt revolves totally around her!  Others have commented on the narcissism expressed throughout the film – Nyad is only concerned about her fate, her goals, her legacy and, for some reason, she expects everyone else to put their lives on hold just to help her live her dreams.  Who does that and why does that make a good movie?

The fault comes down to the script and the direction.  We have to remember that the filmmakers, Chin and Vasarhelyi, have never done a narrative film before.  They won their Oscar for some outrageous camera work paralleling Alex Honnold as he worked his way up El Capitan (in Free Solo).  They were not telling the story – Honnold was!  They were just hanging in there, with ropes, capturing it!  They were, almost, passive observers.  And while that may work with documentaries, it isn’t how a first rate drama is done.  They were out of their element with Nyad and the results show.

Should you watch this film?  It may or may not depict a real event, the main character is not likable, almost all the rest of the characters are non-entities, and the swimming was done in a water tank with all the ocean-effects added by a team of 529 CGI experts!  If you like the acting abilities of Annette Bening or Jodie Foster, go for it.  Otherwise spend your time elsewhere! (3*)

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