'NYAD' Review: The Netflix Biopic Has Annette Bening and Jodie Foster Swimming into Oscars Territory l TIFF 2023

This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.When actors are well-established in Hollywood, with numerous accolades and onscreen roles that span film and TV, it is hard to think that they can still surprise you with their talent. At age 65, Annette Bening continues to impress in an unconventional biopic about swimming legend Diana Nyad. Instead of doing a deep dive into the swimmer’s younger years up until her present-day accomplishments, NYAD centers on the later stage of her career when she finally achieved her dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida before anyone else. Although the journey wasn’t an immediate success, the trials and errors in this film make the finish line that much sweeter as directed by Oscar-winning documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.

The truth is, Diana Nyad in this film has a drive and strong personality that can make her unbearable most days. She has been retired for over 30 years and has become somewhat bitter about not accomplishing the life-and-death goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida non-stop. After blowing out the candles on her 60th birthday, Nyad is determined to give her dream a second shot, despite doctors, physicians, and coaches saying that it would be physically impossible to do this at her age. Caring more about making her name known in history and less about what other people think, the swimmer appoints her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) as her coach and begins training incessantly to get her body back in shape.

Bening is the best she has ever been as Nyad, embracing the athlete’s stubbornness and strong will to a tee. Despite not having a background in swimming, the actress made sure to train her strokes to make them as consistent as possible and it shows. Given that NYAD has multiple underwater sequences both in swimming pools and on high tides, it is impressive to see that Bening continues to keep a steady pace. She might not be a professional swimmer, but she can fool audiences with her ease at sea and unwavering determination.

Alongside Bening, Foster continues to be at the top of her game as Stoll. She is both kindhearted and tough, but more importantly, a friend to rely on. The chemistry between Bening and Foster is unmatched, giving a different outlook on female friendships that aren’t typically portrayed onscreen. These two might not look eye-to-eye throughout this tiresome journey, but they genuinely portray a friendship that has a foundation in love, trust, and faithfulness in each other’s potential. In a world where people often tear each other down, it is refreshing to see women (especially women in their 60s) build each other up for success, despite the odds not being in their favor. For Nyad’s dream to come to fruition, she needed a support system to keep her quite literally alive. Having Stoll, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), Luke Tipple (Luke Cosgrove), and other people around her made this impossible feat doable.

The acting might be one of NYAD‘s strengths, but its second-greatest quality is the film’s director duo. Like Bening and Foster as Nyad and Stoll, there was another pairing that fit like a glove in this project: Chin and Vasarhelyi. The couple won an Academy Award for their 2018 documentary Free Solo and are now making their narrative feature debut with this Netflix film. Their extensive joint work as documentarians might’ve prepared them for an even more holistic approach to this biopic. They step outside the box and utilize footage from real-life Nyad’s interviews, news stories on the athlete, audio segments directly from the times when the swimmer attempted to do the Cuba to Florida trip as well as videos from “the swim.” The way that these real-life elements are intermingled with footage of Bening, Foster, and the ensemble replicating them is what makes this project that much more compelling.

As previously mentioned, it wouldn’t be possible to capture the most important moments of the latter portion of Nyad’s career without featuring extensive swimming sequences. There might be a lot of scenes at sea, but they are far from repetitive or exhausting to the viewer. The editing used in the swimming sequences, such as the inclusion of timers to illustrate how long it was taking the athlete to do her course, help to keep the film afloat. Although NYAD isn’t stepping too much into the swimmer’s earlier days, it does show a few flashbacks here and there to showcase the early stages of her passion for the sport and also the traumas that she carries to this day. These flashback scenes pop up whenever the older version of Nyad is swimming in the ocean, displaying that her mind goes into both the best and worst places when she is underwater for that long.

This is all perfectly complimented by the score from Alexandre Desplat. This story is about triumph and exceeding expectations and the composer expertly evoke this in the viewer whenever a swimming sequence takes place. From Nyad’s most terrifying encounters in the water (like an unnerving jellyfish event) to her being just a few miles away from getting to Florida’s shore, the score accompanies these shots perfectly, with pauses now and then to gain momentum. NYAD may use the well-known formula of the underdog eventually proving everyone wrong, but it doesn’t feel that formulaic much due to the teamwork on screen and behind the scenes in this film. With Bening and Foster making strong leads and Chin and Vasarhelyi tapping into their partnership as co-directors, this Netflix original deserves its praise.

Grade: A-

NYAD had its International Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

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