‘Nyad’: Annette Bening and Jodie Foster Are Riveting in Engrossing True Story of a Historic Swim 

A film like “Nyad” is a reminder that certain achievements, whether in sports, art or anything else, require a special sort of madness. Diana Nyad clearly had it with her obsession to swim from Cuba to Florida. That she apparently accomplished it in 2013 is a tale absolutely worthy of a movie. There was also no better choice for the feat than married documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who after the jaw-dropping chronicles “Free Solo” and “The Rescue” are now giving dramatized cinema a shot. In combining their factual eye for detail with the natural drama of this story, “Nyad” is an impressive first run. There is unavoidable controversy surrounding their subject, which the film side steps, but as what it is, this is a riveting two hours.

Nyad is portrayed by a very fit Annette Bening and starts when the legendary swimmer is 58 after decades of gaining accolades. Her constant companion is Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). They were once a couple but have developed a stronger platonic friendship. Feeling the passage of time, Nyad remains haunted by her failed attempt in the 1980s to make a historic swim from Cuba, the island nation that has fascinated her since childhood, to Florida. The distance is famously 90 miles. Now she is determined again to try, despite the obvious worry from Bonnie. With her confidence regaining an iron will, Nyad commences training, finds a good boat commanded by Dude (Marcos Diaz), and prepares to face a challenge involving everything from unpredictable weather to sea creatures, endless hours at sea and the eventual, grueling toll on her body. 

It must be stated early on that “Nyad” will no doubt prove controversial because the feat behind its entire journey is still disputed. There has been much scrutiny regarding incomplete records and apparent lack of independent observers. The Guinness Book of World Records revoked the swim’s record and the World Open Water Swimming Association again refused to ratify it just this year. Nyad has been dogged by accusations of embellishing many of her accomplishments, which is almost nodded at in a moment in the film where Bonnie jabs at her friend for being a bit of a fabulist. Chin and Vasarhelyi are apparently convinced the story is very much true, so they pour much passion and skill into telling it with breathless energy. A wise choice they make is to focus on Nyad as a person and on the sheer, physical endurance test like her proposed swim entails. 

With rapid editing reminiscent of directors like Oliver Stone, “Nyad” moves from the past to the present, combining documentary footage with the dramatized core featuring an excellent pairing of Bening and Foster. These two actors have the presence and iron determination to make us believe they are facing all of the dangers coming their way. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda (“Top Gun: Maverick”) is sweeping but with the stark intimacy of a documentary. Never does the movie get so picturesque that it feels staged. Bening can’t hide behind the gloss of a typical biopic because the directors bring their sensibility to capturing events as they are happening. When she begins the swim we see with sharp clarity the toll 24-straight hours in the water will take on one’s face, skin and muscles. The salt water will swell your lips and gorgeous cascades of jelly fish can also bring poison. Storm sequences have the same visceral force of “The Perfect Storm.”

The directors then find a good balance for providing insights into Nyad’s past. Her father is prone to rages. Once she begins training as a young swimmer her beloved coach turns out to be a sexual predator. To survive and grow into a stellar athlete means Nyad has been forced to produce a rare confidence. Bonnie warns team members not to bruise the swimmer’s ego too much, and to also not be too soft. Bonnie gets it because she’s also one of those assertive personalities who won’t need anyone holding her hand for anything. These two women are so fascinating that you have to ask why these experienced documentarians didn’t just train their lens on the real people. “Nyad” is so well-made the question isn’t fatal to becoming engrossed.

This film becomes an experience of sensation as we feel every inch of the ocean Nyad is crossing in wind and rain, sunshine and hunger. Bening feels quite committed as an artist, letting the madness shine just a little in her eyes to evoke just how determined Nyad has become to touch her dream. The real swimmer assures us it happened despite all the controversy. What cannot be denied is what the feat itself would entail for any athlete. “Nyad” becomes about how far a body can be pushed, with all of the years and memories someone in their 50s carries with them. On that level it’s an absolutely gripping film with two screen giants proving, like the subject, that it’s never too late to keep doing great work no matter the forecast.

Nyad” begins streaming Nov. 3 on Netflix.