“Do you know how exhausting you can be as a friend?”
These words drop, with bruised affection, from the mouth of athletic legend Diana Nyad’s best friend and confidante-cum-coach Bonnie Stoll, in the third act break of Netflix Studios’ 2023 biopic, Nyad. Even if you have never felt like saying this to someone, or if you have absolutely had it said to you, then I’ve got great news: we can BOTH enjoy this movie! [EDITOR’S NOTE: See Matthew’s wonderful article, The ABCs Of Breakups]
Nyad is just lovely. I’m going with a lettered and excitable grandmother vibe on this one, if you don’t mind. A story of how to keep a friendship going for many decades, finding passion even in a moment of comfort and repose, the human need for challenges that cannot be expressed with flimsy words, and a pleasantly low-cost course in high-concept, crowd-pleasing screenwriting are all on offer here.
Three acts, two friends, one story. The calculus is so elegant it only emerged after a second watch. There is a Hero’s Journey element at the heart of Diana’s later-life arc, which is impressively true and which she shares in person at motivational events all the time; please go see her and finally tackle that crocheted missile launcher your bucket list keeps reminding you to start.
Without drowning you in details —look, I have tried, fruitlessly, to avoid swimming metaphors here, and gotten nowhere. Let’s just dive in and you can slap me later— I remember Ms. Nyad on talk shows, all the time, when I was a kid. I have seemingly always been an incurable feminist, and the first female American astronaut Dr. Sally Ride was one of my heroes, growing up. When Oprah or Phil Donahue’s booking manager realized they could have on Two Accomplished Lesbians for the price of one, little Matthew got to meet Dr. Ride’s crazy swimmer buddy.
At sixty-one years of age, over three decades after her last attempt at the seemingly impossible feat, Diana attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida —a 110-mile journey lasting over fifty hours— without stopping, in open ocean water. Yes, really. The film covers her multiple attempts and prior record-setting swims via excellent editing (more on the dynamite directing team later), and builds the stakes with a confident naturalism.
Footage from many public appearances are effectively intercut with the film proper —starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster as Diana and Bonnie, respectively; apologies for burying the casting lead here. #grandmabrain
The little joke I told myself during rewatches became my personal name for this film: Chekhov’s Delight. There is not a single first act element introduced that is not paid off, satisfyingly and with genuine zeal, in the third. Diana’s obsession with her own surname (“If you look my name up in the dictionary, you will see literally ‘water nymph.’”), the oceanic safety tech two Australian hunks use to keep Diana unmolested by Jaws wannabes, a grizzled but damn-good captain (Rhys Ifans never gets enough credit for how seamlessly he adapts to the casts he joins), and a low-key romantic undercurrent (sorry!) all have fine arcs with poignant finishes in a tight yet deeply breathing two hour runtime.
None of this is to say that the film is predictable or paint-by-numbers. It is, instead, an invigorating blend of crazy and cozy. Like, hug-your-pets-and-call-your-best-friend-after-this-one cozy. I have had several close mates in my lifetime, and in my middle years now, I both lament and cherish these connections, be they fading or flashing. It is also a personal love of mine when lead characters, real or imagined, are depicted in their advancing years. Being young rocks, and is scary and unpredictable, but so is your first gray hair or the backyard injury that makes your doctor’s voice drop with concern.
“Cozy” does not equate to “lazy,” let’s smash that misunderstanding right away. There is plenty of believable pathos braided together to strengthen this narrative rope, and hard-won subversions of athletic biography tropes. For instance, there is no Big Training Montage; rather, Diana swims her entire body to the breaking point, repeatedly, with Bonnie cheering, admonishing, and screaming her on, set to some excellent Great American Songbook selections. Apparently Diana developed a technique over the course of her long-range swims where she kept track of strokes by singing along, in her head, to a mental “playlist” that the film actualizes with energizing camera angles and almost trancelike fade-ups and dissolves of tunes most of us can hum by heart.
Juxtapositions of a ride-or-die friendship pushed to and past its breaking point, alongside saltwater calamities that had me leaning forward with a lump in my throat, are hybridist footprints of the filmmakers, who manage to keep one set of toes in their home turf as documentary filmmaker-photographers, and the other in the labyrinth of major studio machinery. The resulting conception is successful: this baby is healthy and has huge, confident lungs.
Nyad’s helmers are the current daredevil-duo of National Geographic Explorer filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Makers of human achievement nailbiters Meru or Free Solo, Jimmy and Elizabeth are so obviously in love with Diana’s story that it glows from every golden hour backdrop and face-framing closeup. The duo’s very particular skill sets shine during set pieces like the tropical storm hammering Diana and the crew of The Bellissimo, the boat riding alongside her as she makes each attempt. Coverage of countless angles, some seeming impossible, are in all likelihood very real, to those of us familiar with this team’s life-or-death previous work.
There is a palpable sense of confidence and play in every performance, and younger, less famous actors are given great moments to shine. A particular favorite of mine is Jenna Yi as Dr. Angel Yanagihara, the world’s foremost box jellyfish expert, playing a potentially dull academic with an arched eyebrow and hilariously deadpan delivery; her warnings that Diana is constantly tempting an agonizing death add a gallows’ gravitas to the final swim attempt.
I should also note, being a believer in content warnings, that the unfortunate trend of youth athletic coaches abusing their charges plays a part in the film. This is no spoiler, as Diana broke the story to the public decades ago, talked on national stages about the resulting guilt and shame, and presaged the current Sandusky/Nassar era of dragging trust-abusing vampires into the carceral sunlight.
In her final attempt in 2013, at age 64, did Diana Nyad swim successfully from the island of Cuba to the Florida peninsula? You could Google that and ruin the suspense, or give Netflix two hours of your time to find out, albeit with a Hollywood sheen and some artistic liberties taken. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a friend like Bonnie nearby, you can watch it together and pretend there’s a dust storm in the living room! #kleenexsquad
My finishing stitch in this quilt is a recommendation to those seeking a feel-good story with real risks and heart, a fine cast and fantastic filmmaking, and a reminder to rinse and spit, never swallow, saltwater. Grandma Matty loves you.