It’s an incredible feat to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, and a cherry on top to do it at 64 when an ageist consensus has counted you out. In her fifth attempt, prolific distance swimmer Dianna Nyad completed the 111-mile trek without a shark net in 2013. Since then, there has been contention with the records of that feat, with the Guinness Book of World Records revoking recognition of the swim because of lack of ratification. It should be essential to note that this film is based on Nyad’s autobiography, Find A Way.
Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and writer Julia Cox exist in a peculiar space where their main goal is to construct a narrative around the mythos of never giving in to failure no matter how crushing it feels (for the most part it does) and how loose that connection is because of the questioned validity to the main set piece. Nyad swings from being a conventional narrative that tries to integrate documentary parts of actual soundbites and newscasts with some childhood flashbacks mixed in. At times, it might be too much, but the film then uses the performances of Annette Bening as Nyad and her best friend Bonnie Stoll (amazingly played by Jodie Foster) as an anchor for everything.
As we enter August 22, 2010, in Los Angeles, Nyad holds much contempt for the complacency she sees in the world around her. She claims that the entire world is asleep, and when they are awake, they are barely there. In reality, that anger is geared toward her inability to complete her first Cuba to Key West swim at 28 in 1978. No matter how many distance swimming records she captured before and after — it’s the ghost that haunts her in the very first actual frame within the bathtub.
To accomplish (or even attempt at what Nyad has done), you have to have an immense amount of self-confidence. It’s something that Benning’s acting conveys well. The problem with having that aura is if you are not aware, it can keep everybody at a distance. At her surprise birthday party, Nyad meets a potential love interest and can’t stop talking about herself. During one point in the film, she explains the intricacies of her dangerous swim to a group of small children. Bonnie has to pull her away from a group as Nyad goes into the same war stories people have heard for years. It’s the love and the complexities of their friendship that are the high point of the film — a testament to the prowess of Foster and Benning together. If anything, Bonnie pulls Diana back down to earth to feel emotions.
Nyad gets so tunnel-visioned in how she wants to finish what she started that she treats much of her crew as cogs in the wheel. Rhys Ifans’s entry as the straightforward boat captain John Bartlet works as a practical voice to show Nyad this isn’t just as easy as she thinks it is. Not only are there dangerous marine life to consider, but the current and coordinates need to be perfect. There are a lot of moving parts concerning the actual swimming scenes, which add to the tension and also take away from it. Within Nyad’s mind, memories of her childhood play range from her father, who left home, and her childhood swim coach, who sexually assaulted her when she was 14.
Vasarhelyi and Chin implement these tragedies as impediments to her personal growth and a reason to outachieve them vigorously. There’s one scene where Bonnie and Diana talk about those things, but it pulls back much too quickly to further investigate them. It’s if the film remembers that its ultimate purpose is to get to the inspirational, against-all-odds voice of it all. In reality, its subject is just as complex and interesting to investigate.
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Nyad echoes reading the Mary Oliver poem. Life asks this of it and even calls back to the points where we’ve come up short. Sometimes, we get a second chance, and within that, it’ll take a few tries to achieve. Like many films of this mold, we have a story of a person channeling all the doubt, hurt, and trauma to push them to climb the top of their mountain. Those themes hit harder if you give space to all sides of the subject – something Nyad goes in a touch-and-go manner.