One of the most tense cinematic experiences of the year, with Annette Bening playing a 64-year-old swimmer determined to cross from Cuba to Florida.
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The film “Nyad” falls into the same film world as “Apollo 13,” where one who has a nose for news knows how the film ends. “Nyad” the film is one of the top tension cinema experiences of 2023.
Nyad became one of the famous swimmers in the 1970s. She successfully swam around Manhattan (28 miles) and from the Bahamas to Florida (102 miles). Her first attempt to swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West Florida (110 miles) was in 1978 at the age of 28. Nyad’s second through her fifth attempts were done in her early 60s.
Nyad (Annette Bening, oozing leather, chlorine and determination) in the early 2010s is feisty and doesn’t want to hear that once you hit your 60s, one is worthless. She has grown tired of broadcasting on radio and television. Her first attempt of Cuba to Florida at age 28 still sticks in her craw.
In 2010, Nyad began training to give it another go. She talks her coach and lifelong friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster, also oozing leather and chlorine) into training her again. Nyad gathers a crew which includes two kayakers who will help distract sharks, a doctor and a ship’s captain (Rhys Ifans, all eye-roll and sighs, but still takes the gig).
As Nyad deals with several different obstacles with each attempt (jellyfish, weather, flashback trauma), the tension kept building and building. Half-way through the film, I kept asking myself who directed this very tense film. I knew it was two people, but full disclosure, I just didn't know. I realized it was co-directors (and married to each other) Elizabeth Chai Vasrahelyi and Jimmy Chin.
The directing duo previously made “Meru” (Excellent 2015 documentary about climbing the Meru peak in the Himalayas) and won an Academy Award for the 2018 documentary “Free Solo.”
Sidebar on “Free Solo.” I still remember where I was when I experienced that film. I was at my desk at WFYI before my Saturday shift started. Spoiler Alert: When Alex Honnold finally completed El Capitan at Yosemite, I burst into tears and greatly exhaled. The film was that tense.
“Nyad” comes close to moistening the eyes, but the heart rate is still running fast watching the attempts from outside the water and from inside the water. The director’s documentary experience is used well to keep the audience engaged in the attempts.
Kudos to long-time editor Christopher Tellefsen, who has worked on more than one occasion with Milos Foreman, Whit Stillman, Wayne Wang plus “Moneyball,” “The Drop,” “A Quiet Place” and last year’s “The Menu.”
Bening tacks another strong performance onto her resume. Nyad’s level of stubbornness is balanced by her determination (especially for a film critic in his 50s) and inspiration of not being thrown into the social trash heap after a certain age.
I’ve always had a soft spot and fascination for pro athletes near the end of their careers. When to stop while still on top (Sandy Koufax) or a great one past their prime (Willie Mays). While Diana is not in competitive swimming, goal-oriented athletic achievement is one anyone can do at any age. Like the arts, there’s really no retirement age from athletics if you think about it.
Foster, usually seen as the most intense one in a film, gets to bring her own spin on the role of the trainer/coach. Bonnie and Diana are the athletic versions Clairee and Ouiser from “Steel Magnolias,” butting heads like rams in the most supportive way. Their first scene discussing whether Diana wants a birthday party or not sums it up best. They briefly dated a long time ago, but it didn’t last long.
Foster’s Bonnie is the one where outsiders ask her how she can be friends with someone as hard-headed as Diana. They just are.
On paper, “Nyad” is a by-the-numbers underdog story. The chemistry between Bening and Foster plus the swimming footage make it a step above.
Matthew Socey is host of the Film Soceyology podcast on wfyi.org.