By Lynn Venhaus
Two remarkable – and impressively tough — actresses showcase their considerable skills in “Nyad,” which concerns a four-year chapter in the distance swimmer’s life when she is in her 60s, and it’s not all smooth sailing.
Three decades after she gave up marathon swimming for a prominent career as an analyst and commentator for ABC Sports, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) returns to an obsession: the “Mount Everest” of swims, a 110-mile trek from Cuba to Florida. At the age of 60, in 2010, with the help of her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) and a dedicated sailing team, she commits to achieving this lifelong dream of an open ocean swim without a shark cage.
Nyad isn’t your typical inspiring poster girl athlete. She’s prickly, selfish, bossy, and stubborn. She infuriates those around her. Yet, she has the grit and determination to shake things up and make a big impact, so she makes a riveting film subject, and Bening gets under her skin to see what makes her tick. And roar.
Another fine point is that she’s living in a world ready to dismiss her at age 60, and she’s not about to do that: “Hold On!” is a terrific theme for this day and age. So, she’s complex and flawed, and the film doesn’t sugar-coat any of it. Bravo!
In their narrative feature debut, co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who won an Oscar for Best Documentary with “Free Solo” in 2018, move from the heights to the depths with consummate know-how. This is a solid effort from the pair, who are natural storytellers.
They are aided by exceptional cinematography by Claudio Miranda, who won an Oscar for his shimmering work in “Life of Pi.” He can make the ocean appear either stunningly beautiful or dark and ominous with tremendous flair. And composer Alexandre Desplat captures the grandeur of nature as well as the dangers in the music score’s emotional beats.
It’s a tough story to tell because of its demanding physical requirements. Screenwriter Julia Cox has adapted the story from Nyad’s memoir, “Find a Way,” and archival footage helps explain her previous open water swims triumphs and challenges. At age 28, she had failed to accomplish the very dream she set out to achieve at age 60, and this single-minded pursuit makes people around her doubtful.
During the 103-mile swim, she faces such dangers as box jellyfish, sharks, unpredictable weather, changing currents – and she’s her own worst enemy when she doesn’t listen to and heed advice.
The stamina she exhibits is admirable, but the movie focuses on more than physical health, including her inner battles with emotional and mental health, which is an important element, given her bull-in-a-China-shop personality.
Flashbacks to her childhood reveal some trauma, which adds to the understanding of why she goes to extremes.
Bening, whose range has been noteworthy in a long career, in such Oscar-nominated roles as “The Grifters,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “Being Julia” and “American Beauty” – but the Academy Award has eluded her those four times. She could get nominated for this performance, but it’s not a shoo-in among heavy competition this year.
Now, Foster, who has won two – for “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” hasn’t been working as much in recent years, and it’s invigorating see her give this character her all. She started as a child in the business, and her strengths as an actress have only grown.
As Bonnie, she conveys how exasperating it is to be Diana’s friend, but she does share such traits as fierceness and being driven by dreams. However, they are mainly opposites – she’s compassionate and listens, while Diana is self-absorbed and hard-headed.
However, they love each other as friends, which comes through. Both are lesbians, but not in a relationship.
Her crazy quest is made possible through a team of dedicated crew members, led by Rhys Ifans as navigator John Bartlett, and he is always a pleasure to watch in movies. The real expedition had about 40 people, such is the difference between fiction and non-fiction.
What is gripping are the struggles with the elements, as it’s key to our emotional investment, as we see them give everything they have.
This is a sturdy biopic that gives two great actresses an opportunity to shine – and look in the mirror and say “Find a Way.”
“Nyad” is a 2023 biopic directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and starring Annette Bening, Jodie Foster and Rhys Ifans. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual abuse, some strong language and brief partial nudity, and the run time is 2 hours, 1 minute. It is in select theatres Oct. 25, and streaming on Netflix Nov. 3. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.