Swimming long distances in open water presents challenges beyond the physical torment. Think sharks. And poisonous jellyfish. These are just two of the potentially fatal issues Diana Nyad had to deal with as she swam from Cuba to Florida, non-stop and unassisted, with only a support boat to monitor her progress and frequently squirt water and other nutrients down her throat. The Netflix movie “Nyad”, adapted from her memoirs and starring Annette Bening, tells about her difficult journey.
Your first question might be: Why? The film struggles to find an answer beyond “because it’s there” and because of some of the emotional wounds from his childhood that it aims to repair. So why is this goal superior to others? Why this strip of water? It’s up to us to guess. But this is an amazing feat that no one has completed before or since.
Diana, an athlete and sports journalist, is the kind of person who is off-putting from the get-go, not so much as ranting: “Laziness is contagious, and we have to nod as if it’s normal for everyone to give in to it. ordinary existence?”
He’s restless and directionless, but is he? interesting? The real Diana Nyad; Bening’s self-important, one-note comment isn’t all that serious. As an end credits act, the film itself does nothing, including clips of the real woman whose personality and sense of humor come through even in those brief moments.
An accomplished long-distance swimmer in his youth, his 60th birthday was the catalyst that prompted him to return to the water to attempt once more the 110-mile, over two-day endurance swim, three decades and with some modifications after his first attempt – and he failed – which he managed to complete at the age of 28. But she’ll need her best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) as her coach and project manager. There’s a wild look in his eyes as he comes up with this idea. “You said I needed to do something to get rid of the fear,” Bonnie replies: “I meant you should sign up for speed dating. Or see a therapist.”
Diana, who has little to do with her time and repeatedly tells anyone who will listen that her last name means nymph in Greek, is finally struck by the idea of achieving this goal. With his adventure from Cuba to Florida — a monster in itself — he lives out his own version of the “Moby-Dick” that has taunted him all these years and made him as determined and destructive in his pursuit as Ahab was against the whale. , starring Bonnie as Ishmael.
Training montage comes early. It’s very early (and very impressive) in terms of the story’s trajectory, but that’s because Diana will have to make several attempts over the years. successful In 2013 – fifth time’s the charm – he is 64 years old. He makes incremental progress each time, learning as he goes, and eventually dons a diving suit and mask while swimming in jellyfish-infested waters. (Why he wasn’t wearing a wetsuit the entire time remains an open question, since one of his concerns during training is how cold he’ll be.) The logistics are both simple; He eats his food by stepping on the water next to it. The boat for Bonnie to get the pasta into her mouth – complicated by both the ocean’s changing currents and other safety issues.
I would have liked more details from screenwriter Julia Cox, even if they were of the embarrassing kind. How does Diana manage to evacuate her bowels in a standard swimsuit on a two-day trip, or does this bodily function stall while burning so many calories? How do they make sure he doesn’t fall asleep or faint? What happens when human skin is immersed in salt water for such a long time? The film envisions what it might be like when he starts hallucinating, but otherwise his psychological state is quickly ignored. Diana creates a mental playlist to occupy her thoughts while swimming, but we have little insight into how this works or whether she allows herself other thoughts.
Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are primarily documentary filmmakers (notably with their 2018 Oscar-winning rock climbing film “Free Solo”) and are experienced with stories of people pushing themselves to their limits. But they struggle to adapt some of these skills to a scripted format, relying too heavily on archival footage, which softens the film rather than deepens it. I wish they had relied more on cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s amazing underwater photography.
Frequent flashbacks to Diana’s childhood provide some insight into her intense drive. But these scenes also suggest that Bonnie would benefit from therapy as he suggests, particularly therapy regarding her fraught childhood relationship with her father and also with a sexually abusive coach. The film treats these twin memories as ghosts, both haunting him and motivating him to achieve his goal. A little too neat.
There are endless practicalities to consider for such a masochistic project, and Diana is supported by a team of experts whom she persuades to work for free; these include a wanderer (Rhys Ifans, echoing Bening’s frayed blond haircut) and his version. A rousing pre-swim speech is a marvel of narcissism: “You have all sacrificed so much; No money, no bonuses, no guarantees. But I cannot think of a more worthy reason for such a sacrifice: My life’s mission – dare I say my destiny?”
Bonnie eventually calls him out on “all this me, me, me, me bullshit,” but the film doesn’t explore this further. Maybe mass personal involvement is a necessary personality trait for this sort of thing. I’m sure it helps. But perhaps this proposition is as reductive as the assumption that only miserable people make great art.
The film’s Diana has tunnel vision. That may be true, but the real Diana Nyad seems to be interested in much more than herself. He wouldn’t have become a successful journalist otherwise, and it’s interesting that “Nyad” omits an interesting detail that might reveal something about how he sees his place in the world: A month after arriving in Florida from Cuba, he swam for 48 hours straight at an outdoor pool set up in midtown Manhattan as part of a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy victims. He raised more than $100,000.
One old interview, asked how we can make our daily lives more adventurous. “There is value in listening to what others are doing and what their experiences are.” A stronger film would have found a way to capture this aspect of the personality as well.
“Nyad” — 2 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: netflix
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.