Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The film undercuts the pop psychology associated with sporting success, clearing the space in which to attempt a more honest account."

As Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins famously noted, there is a fine line between stupid and clever. Likewise, one might say, there is a fine line between hero and villain. Diana Nyad – author, radio host, squash player and, most famously, long distance swimmer – encompasses aspects of each of these things in Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s take on the most remarkable swim of her life. The film does not concern itself with the way that aspects of that swim have been called into question, nor with Nyad’s established tendency to exaggerate, but focuses instead on her experience of forcing her way through life whilst demanding much more from it than others do, and on others’ experience of the attraction and sometime unpleasantness of being close to such a person.

The closest person of all to her is Bonnie Stoll, her lifelong best friend and latterly her coach. She’s played here by Jodie Foster, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work, whilst Annette Bening was nominated for Best Actress for playing Nyad herself. The bond between the two women is the core of the film and the key to the exploration of character referenced above. Stoll is by no means a shrinking violet herself, exhibiting the toughness that one suspects would be a prerequisite of attracting Nyad’’s interest. Her refusal to be ordered around and her increasing frustration with Nyad’s self-centredness is balanced by the deep love she has for her friend. Both stars excel and very much deserve the attention they’ve received.

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Conjuring up a surprisingly resemblance to the real Nyad, Bening has clearly muscled up for the role, and confidently carries the additional layer of fat essential to surviving long distance swims, though not as much as Nyad would eventually realise she needed for the task. She has the distinctive shape of somebody who has spent a lot of time in the water, which is essential to making the swimming scenes convincing. Viewers might note that although there is a lot of hype about Nyad taking on her big swim in her Sixties, as if such things ought to be the preserve of much younger people, it is now well established that women in particular tend to get better at marathon swims with age, up until the point when serious decline sets in. This was not known, however, at the end of the Seventies when she initially abandoned her swimming career, so she would not then have expected that she would ever have the chance to come back.

Successful distance swimming – as noted here early on – is about psychology as well as physical prowess. The same is true of mountain climbing, the directors’ own specialty, so there is a deep understanding at work here: it is a sports film made from an insider’s perspective. At the time when she resumed her swimming, Nyad was making a living as an inspirational speaker, and on the several occasions that we see her speak, we also see Stoll cringe. This is one of several ways in which the film undercuts the pop psychology associated with sporting success, clearing the space in which to attempt a more honest account.

If Nyad is anything, she is ruthless – with other people as well as herself. Her frequent references to destiny, a belief which centres on the coincidence of her name, might appeal to the media but make a rather different impression on the people around her who realise that, at least on some occasions, their lives are also on the line. Who wants to die for somebody else’s ambition? Stoll sticks around as long as she does because, it’s implied, she realises that Nyad needs this in order to keep her demons at bay. Flashbacks to childhood give us glimpses of this, addressing accusations made by Nyad against her one-time instructor Jack Nelson. It’s an effective approach which sidesteps arguments over exactly what happened, along with any risk of titillation, putting the focus instead on the damage done.

Other aspects of the film are approached with similar confidence. The camera spends a lot of time in the water, low to the waves, capturing the swimmer’s experience of sliding in and out of them. Grant Elder’s sound design lets us feel their impact. The pacing is expertly managed to let us feel Nyad’s frustrations without losing patience with the film ourselves. In a sequence during which Nyad is hallucinating (a commonplace phenomenon when the body is pushed hard past the point of exhaustion), a Roy Orbison song is recut smoothly but incorrectly so that anyone familiar with it will experience that little jump in time that occurs when parts of the brain momentarily shut down in lieu of much-needed sleep.

Alongside the efforts of the two leads, there’s good work here from Rhys Ifans as the initially easygoing (though precise) captain of the support boat, whose patience is pushed to the limit by Nyad’s refusal to quit. Chin and Vasarhelyi ultimately achieve the seemingly impossible feat of celebrating her never-say-die spirit in traditional style whilst also exploring its dark side. They show us the beauty of the ocean let ensure we are aware of the danger of what lurks down there in its depths.

Reviewed on: 11 Feb 2024
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The remarkable true story of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who, at the age of 60, set out to become the first person to complete the 'Everest of swims', a 53-hour, 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida through dangerous open ocean without a shark cage.

Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Writer: Julia Cox

Starring: Jodie Foster, Annette Bening, Rhys Ifans, Ethan Jones Romero, Johnny Solo

Year: 2023

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: US

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