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HomeReviewsTIFF Review: NYAD Offers a Bold, Inspiring Story of Woman vs. Nature

TIFF Review: NYAD Offers a Bold, Inspiring Story of Woman vs. Nature


Annette Bening in NYAD (photo by Liz Parkinson, courtesy Netflix)

Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have cornered the documentary genre, making films that include the Oscar-winning, Free Solo, about brave men and women performing fantastic achievements and heroic deeds. It would make some sense their first attempt at a narrative feature would allow them to use a similar skill set, which is why this exciting portrait of swimmer Diana Nyad, as played by Annette Bening, could be just the movie that allows them to continue working in the narrative world.

Adapted by Julia Cox from Nyad’s own memoir, this biopic introduces us to Diana in her 60s, three decades after some of her greatest swimming achievements, failing at her toughest challenge, trying to swim the 103 miles from Cuba to Florida. Her best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) is always there for support, but even she’s dubious her friend can pull off such a feat at her later age. From there, we watch her training and preparation, putting together a team that can help her achieve what she wasn’t able to thirty years earlier. Diana is headstrong and outspoken, often causing friction with those around her, counterbalanced by Bonnie’s worries that her lifelong friend might be trying to achieve the impossible, something that could literally kill her.

Bening, Jodi Foster in NYAD (photo by Kimberley French, courtesy Netflix)

There are many differences between making docs and narrative features, the key one being the actors, but Vasarhelyi and Chin assembled a cast that could deliver the complex emotional dynamics of those trying to help Diana achieve such a lofty goal. Benning herself is clearly no slouch in creating a character that has the audience rooting for her, in spite of and because of her flaws. Ms. Foster’s Bonnie really acts as the audience’s perspective in trying to understand why Nyad pushes herself to achieve the impossible, while Rhys Ifans scores one of his juiciest roles as navigator John Bartlett, one of the few people who regularly stands up to Nyad and calls off one attempt after another due to weather or other factors.

While Chin and Vasarhelyi tell this story with as much veracity as their docs – The Rescue immediately comes to mind, because it involved recreating the Thai cavern rescues from 2018 – there’s still an aspect of wondering whether things happened the way they’re depicted, particularly as each of Nyad’s attempts gets called off. There are also parts of the story that don’t get their full and necessary attention, such as abuse Nyad suffered as a teenager. NYAD suffers from the pitfalls of telling a true story in a limited amount of time. At times, the narrative is uneven, but nonetheless, the experience is exceptional.

Foster, Rhys Ifans in NYAD (photo by Kimberley French, courtesy Netflix)

The filmmakers have put together terrific teams for their past docs, and that’s just as much the case with NYADi. Some of the more impressive work is done by the film’s hair and makeup teams, led by Daniel Curet and Felicity Bowring, which is not the typical overblown work to try to make the actors look more like their characters.

The cinematography by Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) is lovely, but special attention should be paid specifically to the underwater photography by Peter Zuccarini, his underwater Camera Op Sean P. Gilbert, and the rest of the camera crew who helped NYAD look so great both above and below the water.

A scene from NYAD (photo by Kimberley French, courtesy Netflix)

Possibly NYAD‘s biggest outright ringer is Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat, who knows how to create the right balance between inspiring orchestral fireworks and helping to create the necessary tension on whether Nyad might succeed. To some, this might be one of Desplat’s more heavy-handed scores, yet it still generally works.

Inspirational sports dramas can be hard to achieve, especially when based on a well-covered event where many may already know the ending. This isn’t the case with NYAD, since it gives you so much more insight into what Diana Nyad must have been going through while attempting to achieve the impossible. It is a rousing story that keeps you rooting for Nyad’s success.

Rating: B+

NYAD will be released into select cities on Oct. 20, then stream on Netflix starting Nov. 3, following its premieres at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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