Netflix’s Nyad struggles with tone and engagement, offering a casual viewing experience with good performances but lacking profound depth.
Nyad is a sports biopic about the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) and her multiple attempts to become the first person to swim unassisted from Cuba to Florida. The film marks the first foray into narrative feature filmmaking of Academy Award winning-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, known for their documentary work in Free Solo. Why they would choose this subject, closely tied to extreme sports, is evident, due to their prior experience with extreme sports documentaries. Nyad primarily focuses on the swimmer’s relentless attempts to achieve her goal. It vividly portrays the grueling and exhausting nature of her endeavors, not only for her but also for her support team.
Regrettably, the film’s tone translates into a similarly uninteresting and tiresome viewing experience. While these shortcomings don’t render the film bad, some awkward editing and story beats hinder the overall engagement of the audience, contributing to its most significant flaw: the struggle to make the audience connect or care about the characters and their story.
Diana Nyad embarked on a total of five attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. Her first attempt was in 1978 at the age of 28, while the other four took place between 2011 and 2013, shortly after her 60th birthday. The film chooses to focus on these latter attempts, which occupy a significant portion of the narrative. Throughout her journey, she’s accompanied by her coach and best friend, Bonnie (Jodie Foster), as well as the quiet, gruff, yet deeply caring navigator, John (Rhys Ifans). During each of these attempts, Nyad faces increasing dangers that not only threaten her well-being but also her life, including exhaustion, severe storms, and encounters with powerfully poisonous jellyfish, which force her to abandon her efforts along the way. Her persistent pursuit of this epic quest should evoke triumph, with the audience cheering her on for her extreme perseverance and endurance.
However, these reckless brushes with danger only heighten concerns, particularly from Foster’s character. While the dynamic of their friendship is enjoyable to watch and keeps the viewer engaged, it’s hard not to sympathize with Foster. Nyad’s continuous and self-centered actions often come across as arrogant and condescending, placing her own desires above the worries and safety of others. Instead of eliciting sympathy or understanding, Nyad’s attitude, mixed with her passionate determination to complete the daunting task, makes it unclear whether she’s a “likable” character. While central characters in films don’t need to be morally virtuous, it’s essential for viewers to grasp their motivations and journey. Yet, due to the lack of a clear understanding or connection, it becomes easy for viewers to side with those who discourage her, almost negating the film’s intended impact.
In an effort to address this issue, the film incorporates flashbacks to Nyad’s upbringing and how her connection to swimming developed. These flashbacks are often interwoven with her long-distance swims and depict traumatic events from her youth. However, instead of aiding the audience’s understanding, they come across as a thinly veiled and unsuccessful attempt to evoke sympathy. Although the screenplay is based on her 2015 memoir “Find a Way,” and is penned by Julia Cox, it’s difficult to understand why these inclusions were necessary. The flashbacks appear superfluous to the narrative, failing to provide a clear link between Nyad’s past and her present circumstances. While initially, they may seem to tug at the heartstrings, upon closer examination, they appear disconnected from the overarching story, leaving the finished product feeling hollow and empty.
Transitioning from the world of documentary filmmaking, Vasarhelyi and Chin’s influence is unmistakably felt in the film, although the transition to a narrative format isn’t entirely seamless. The film heavily relies on real-life footage, a common technique in biopic filmmaking. Notable instances where this technique works effectively include Nyad’s initial start in Cuba during her first (technically second, but first shown in the film) swim attempt. The footage captures the crowd’s support as she dives into the water, immersing the audience in the moment.
Another powerful use of real-life footage occurs at the film’s conclusion, as it shows her successful swim. However, these impactful moments are not the only instances of this technique. There are also brief segments depicting her training and swimming during her various attempts. The frequency and specific moments at which it’s employed in the film can make it feel somewhat overwhelming and excessive. Instead of creating distinct and unique moments that truly engage the audience in her journey, it occasionally dilutes their impact by incorporating less essential or mundane uses.
Attempting to integrate the awkward flashbacks, excessive use of archival footage, and the confusing portrayal of Nyad as a character creates an overall clumsy and somewhat uncomfortable viewing experience. Despite the negative aspects mentioned, the overall experience has its merits. Nyad’s remarkable journey is inherently captivating, and the natural chemistry between two acclaimed actors provides a compelling aspect. Annette Bening authentically embodies her character as Nyad, while Jodie Foster’s presence on screen is always a pleasure, though neither delivers performances that surpass their existing work in their filmographies.
For a film with a limited theatrical release and set for a wider push on the streaming platform Netflix, Nyad provides a simple and pleasant viewing experience akin to a dramatized documentary, suitable for a laid-back afternoon at home. Nevertheless, while Nyad offers a glimpse into an extraordinary journey, for a viewer who’s searching for a bit more nuance and depth to her story, it falls short of delivering a truly engaging narrative. If you seek a deeply emotional sports film, this Netflix flick may not be the one to choose.
Nyad will be streaming on Netflix from November 3, 2023.