Nyad tells the story of Diana Nyad’s epic marathon swim from Cuba to Florida, a distance of over 100 miles. Nyad was 64 years old at the time. She swam nonstop for 52 hours and 54 minutes. It’s a scripted film with Annette Bening playing Diana Nyad, but it incorporates some documentary-like moments using archival footage.
Diana Nyad came out of 30 years of retirement from swimming at age 60 to try again to make the swim from Cuba to Key West. She’d failed at it as a young athlete. Her lifelong friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) was her coach and helpmate. It took her 5 tries to accomplish the goal. She was defeated by box jellyfish, storms, and other hazards. She never gave up.
Finally, on her 5th attempt, the weather cooperated, the shark repellent tech worked right, the jellyfish suit protected her, and she made it.
When she walked the last few steps to get her feet out of the water in Key West she said three things to the cheering crowd who greeted her. Never, ever give up. You’re never too old to chase your dreams. It looks like a solitary sport but it’s a team.
That team spent 5 years with her as she demanded again and again to keep trying. John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) was the navigator. There were boat captains, doctors, kayakers – 40 people in all. They all worked free. They put up with Nyad’s self-obsessed and rather arrogant personality, they made sacrifices at home and in their jobs, they often threatened to quit. But they kept coming back. Nyad could be a pain in the butt, but she was inspiring and they ultimately believed in her and her determination.
Annette Bening and Jodie Foster did a beautiful job with their roles. Bening caught Nyad’s demeanor and Jodie Foster looks very much like the woman she was playing. Jodie Foster got to relax into the kind of rich dyke energy she’s never been allowed to put on a screen before. It was a gorgeous performance.
Annette Bening worked with a coach for a year before filming began to learn to swim like Diana Nyad. Most of the water shots were in a tank in the Dominican Republic, but they looked realistic.
Sometimes while swimming and exhausted, Nyad would hallucinate. The film used these moments to show some clips of Nyad’s real life. She was sexually abused by a coach. She was determined to be a champion swimmer from a very early age and often repeated her father’s story that the word “nyad” meant water nymph.
I remember watching her efforts again and again. I remember how overjoyed I was in 2013 when she walked up on the sand in Key West. What an accomplishment! But I confess watching the film I teared up a bit all over again at the end. I knew what was coming but it still thrilled me. The film got me hooked on the drama and excitement all over again.
Diana Nyad is a lesbian. After her successful swim she offended her LGBTQ+ community and the wider world by making negative remarks about trans women. Being anti-trans can put me right off people and make me turn completely away from them. However, she retracted those remarks and apologized. It sounded like she’d learned something. Either that or she had good help writing her apology. We want our heroes to be perfect, but they never are. The incident isn’t in the film, but Annette Bening’s performance included moments showing that Diana could be abrasive and annoying.
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed. The screenplay was by Julia Cox based on Diana Nyad’s book “Find a Way.” The film is streaming on Netflix.