'Nyad': A Tepid, Feel-Good Biopic
When you go to see an inspirational sports movie, you more or less know what you're getting yourself into. Nine times out of ten, these types of films follow the same structure, where our protagonist must overcome adversity, usually with the help of a mentor, and accomplish their goals. These films also have the tendency to be crowd-pleasers, taking the audience on an emotional journey before ultimately ending on a high note. The tropes found in sports films are tried and true, but more often than not, they do tend to feel a bit stale. With Nyad, the debut feature from documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, we find ourselves in the world of swimming, a sport we don't often see as the main focus in these types of films. The one-two punch of this being both a sports film and a biopic suggests that this film is a bit Oscar-baity, and having seen this film, I'm inclined to agree. The film itself isn't bad, necessarily, but it hit some of the same beats we're accustomed to when it comes to sports films. It's a shame, as Diana Nyad's story is fascinating, but the film's approach to it feels rather standard and not nearly as thrilling as it could have been.
Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) is a long-distance swimmer who rose to prominence when she swam around Manhattan island in 1975. In 1978, she attempted to be the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, but poor weather conditions caused her to be pulled out of the ocean. Several decades later, Nyad, now in her 60s and retired from competitive swimming, finds herself wanting to make another attempt at the Cuba to Florida swim. With the help of her longtime friend, Bonnie (Jodie Foster), she gathers a team to help her fulfill this dream, and to overcome the many obstacles in her way.
It makes sense that Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi would be drawn to this project, as they previous directed documentaries like Free Solo, which similarly follows a person's quest to pull off an incredible feat. However, it is apparent like they still have some work to do in terms translating their skills to a narrative feature. While the sequences in the water are quite well done, the land sequences fall flat for the most part. The scenes in which Nyad is attempting the Cuba to Florida swim have a level of intensity that draws you in, but everything else around it isn't too impressive. That's not to say it doesn't at least make a couple of creative swings, but they are executed rather poorly. I particularly disliked the moments where Nyad seemingly has these visions with bright colors and various sea animals, which feel so goofy and unnecessary. I will say that some of the editing choices, which splices in footage of Nyad's actual swim, as well as some news reports on her, are occasionally effective, and are a decent touch overall.
Chin and Vasarhelyi aren't fully to blame for some of the narrative stumbles the film makes, as the screenplay is pretty basic as well. Considering that this is screenwriter Julia Cox's first feature length script, I have to give her some leeway. It's not a bad screenplay in terms of its structure, or even in its dialogue, but some of the directions the film goes in do feel a bit questionable. Considering the film is detailing the multiple attempts that Diana Nyad made to swim from Cuba to Florida, there is a repetitive nature to the film that it simply can't avoid. This does cause some problems in the back half, but the ending does make up for it a little. My biggest issue with the script is how it handles Nyad's backstory. While the elements regarding her acclaim as a swimmer told through archive footage is admittedly good, its the way it frames her younger years that felt a bit off to me. It is shot in a cheesy way, and overly dramatizes the trauma she experienced as a child. Furthermore, it feels more like an afterthought in the overall context of the film. I understand wanting to include the hardships Nyad had to overcome, especially in regards to the abuse she experienced as a teenager, but the film kind of yada-yadas it in a way that feels a bit disingenuous.
Where the film does excel, however, is when it focuses on the friendship between Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll, played by Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, respectively. Bening and Foster are such seasoned professionals that almost anything they do from here on out will be good at the very least. I wouldn't say that this is either one's best role, but the dynamic between their characters really carries the film. They complement each other so well, with Bening nailing Nyad's intense determination, and Foster taking on a more rational and friendly persona. Bening gets the showier role, and shoulders the emotional weight of the film, but it is so controlled to the point that it feels limited in certain ways. Foster's performance feels a bit more lived in, and I often found myself connecting more with her character than Nyad. Both certainly bring the right energy to the film, and make some of the more boring moments in the film a bit more bearable. I also enjoyed Rhys Ifans's performance, as he elevates the role from being a more generic grump to being a more well-rounded addition to the team. The rest of the performances are pretty solid, but the work that Bening, Foster, and Ifans bring to the table are major highlights.
One of the more surprising elements of the film is its music, which is far more integral than I was anticipating. Alexandre Desplat's score is quite good, which comes as no surprise given that he is one of the best composers currently working today. It is a bit more playful than some of his other work, and it is a great asset to the film. I also liked the use of 60s folk rock in some of the swimming scenes. The songs themself are a nice touch, but what really makes it work is the inclusion of Annette Bening's voice singing along with them. It gives the impression that we are in Nyad's head as she is swimming, and it is such a simple, yet effective choice.
Nyad is a bit too by-the-numbers to make the splash it wants to, but it still works as a crowd-pleasing sports drama. It is largely carried by Annette Bening and Jodie Foster's performances, and they are the main reason why I stayed so invested throughout the film. Sure, the story of Diana Nyad is intriguing, but I felt like I learned more about her during the end credits than I did during the whole film. That said, if you're looking for a feel-good movie, this should definitely scratch that itch. But if you're looking for a quality biopic, you'll likely find this film to be a bit shallow.