Among the casual Guinness Book of World Records-reading crowd, the majority point to something like Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, as the top measuring stick or pedestal of human endurance. With altitude acclimation and strategic routing, it takes about two months to complete that 8,849 meter climb. As of last year, 6,338 different people (with many conquering the peak more than once) have made it to that summit to go with 322 deaths in a century of record-keeping.
Not to dismiss that arduous and dangerous quest, but can we really call climbing Mount Everest special after nearly 7,000 victories? If you’re asking, “Well, what’s harder or more impressive than climbing Mount Everest?” Well, say no more. Nyad, playing currently on Netflix, has an answer and its most concise rebuttal to that question is swimming. Yes, you heard that right. Swimming.
We’re not talking about that splashy stuff you pretend to do in a heated and chlorinated swimming pool for some casual exercise. We’re talking miles, not meters, of endurance swimming. In 2013, at the senior age of 64, long-distance swimmer Diane Nyad swam 110 miles from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida in 58 straight hours. Including her, only three people have ever done it. Sorry, but Diane Nyad and those other two make every Mount Everest climber look like a parka-wearing wimp. Hop into the turbulent Gulf of Mexico teeming with sharks and jellyfish in your skivvies and let’s see how long you doggie-paddle.
NYAD is the film adaptation of that incredible feat recounted in Diane’s autobiography Find a Way. Four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening is playing the title subject alongside two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster as her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll. This true chronicle lends itself to a sports movie’s narrative flow and swell of dramatic license, yet NYAD was made by a pair of Oscar-winning documentarians—the Free Solo husband-and-wife directorial team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin—giving it a purposeful backbone of authenticity to push some of those tropes to the side.
When we meet her in the 2010s, Diane Nyad has settled grumpily into her approaching sexagenarian years as a retired endurance swimmer and sports correspondent still hoping to control every conversation—even the casual ones—like a press conference. For years, she has told the same story to anyone who will listen about how her surname is Greek for “water nymph” and the detailed experiences of her distance swimming accomplishments from the 1970s. Borderline bragging as she does, Diane hasn’t swam with a training or competitive purpose in 30 years.
The benchmark of turning 60 spurs a soul awakened by purpose and brings to mind the proverbial “one that got away.” When Diane was 28 in 1978, she made it about halfway from Cuba to Florida in 42 grueling hours slammed by 8-foot swells into her own shark cage. A spark in her becomes determined, even at her advanced age to try it again and she enlists Bonnie to coach her. The question arises quickly on whether this renewed goal of correcting a previous failure is about the accomplishment itself or blind personal glory of someone with a superiority complex.
Bonnie becomes the leader of what grows to be a vital team of contributors—from shark specialists to swimsuit designers—joined for the high of being part of something special. The next top presence among them is scene-stealing Rhys Ifans as John Bartlett, the veteran navigator tasked with finding the right window and route with the least amount of weather risks and most beneficial ocean currents. Vasarhelyi and Chin assembled a strong team of their own for the film itself with Alexandre Desplat’s rising score, striking makeup work, vibrant topside cinematography and stellar underwater photography from the Life of Pi duo of Claudio Miranda and second unit director Pete Zuccarini. Hopefully, unlike Diane with her tireless supporters, the directors said thank you to their people for their efforts. They sure earned it.
That question of glory is asked because of the increased risks this swim presents and Bonnie’s position of supposed better judgment. The external or environmental factors of sharks, jellyfish, unpredictable weather, and the financial cost of seeking sponsorship and a support team were still on the table combined with physical challenges of exposure, malnourishment, dehydration, mental stress. This isn’t an afternoon dip in the ocean. This could claim her life, something Diane made peace with and avoided further distraction or reflection time to contemplate. In her heart, this swim is determination and focus rolled up in destiny and fate. “Onward” was her rallying cry and Mary Oliver’s poetic precept about “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life” was her mantra.
Much of that same resolve bled out of the two lead actresses in NYAD. No matter if she was filmed in a protected tank or in actual oceans, Annette Bening put herself in phenomenal physical shape for this role. Working with stunt coordinator Mark Rayner (Ticket to Paradise), that’s her in her own sixties kicking and pulling that methodical front crawl in the thick of it scene after scene versus the ticking clock and mileage count in the corner of the screen which races our viewing hearts. Out of the water, the sure-fire Oscar contender portrayed the sometimes combative traits of pride and ultra-competitiveness with emotional precision.
Across from Bening’s surges was Jodie Foster. For a bit of Nyad, you wonder if Foster was going to be solely saddled walking the deck, clapping, blowing a whistle, and spouting coach-speak encouragement. She is overqualified as that kind of voice-of-reason cheerleader. Thankfully, Nyad allowed her character to rise with the stakes to be a fully developed and invested platonic counterpart to Bening. Seeing the two stars known for blunt directness in their performances earn a balanced friendship became the biggest victory of the film.
Thanks to heart-pumping peril and committed performances, Nyad evokes maximum inspiration possible. Even if the movie gets a little lost in its own wringer of waves and bubbles, audiences love human fortitude and sports movies of this ilk don’t come around as often as they used to a generation ago. When done right, all of their telegraphed qualities and moments—from the right music driving the movie and the skyward establishing shots showing scale to the never-give-up attitude and celebratory big hugs—grip us like few other big screen stories can. We’re here for it all and Nyad earns its proper hero worship.