Diana Nyad's Big Swim

By Moira Jean Sullivan

Nyad is now out on Netflix starring Jodie Foster and Annette Bening about Diana Nyad, a courageous 60+ woman who would not give up her dream of swimming 110 miles from Cuba to Miami. The film tackles the universal question of how great athletes co-exist with their environment. The answer is that nothing exists in a vacuum even a famous solo swimmer in a volatile ocean. A dynamic skilled team is assembled to work with Nyad including her personal assistant Bonnie (Jodie Foster), young deep sea swimmers who put up shark screens, a marine biologist who's well versed in the dangers of jellyfish, John Bartlett - her navigator, and others in a team of about 40 people who accompany Nyad on this Olympian swim to Miami. It's not a straight trajectory with several setbacks before she finally succeeds. It's a plus that the film is set up like that but one can't help being a bit irritated with Nyad’s egotistical personality though there are compelling reasons for this. She puts herself and her team in danger often for her personal goal of swimming and not giving up despite the limitations of her body and advice from medical and scientific experts. Yet the one territory the experts have not conquered is the human brain and personal dreams and that is the strength of Nyad. Diana Nyad pushes forward with her unique ambition that cannot be medically or scientifically quantified. She has “the dream”; it's even on a T-shirt Bonnie (Jodie Foster) wears called “extreme dreams” and there's no better concept to describe what Annette Bening so magnificently represents in her character. We haven't seen Jodie Foster in such a great role in a long time and she's perfect as the person who loves, challenges, and is positively critical of her best friend.

There are all multiple ways to look at what Nyad is trying to accomplish and a chance to see her background: her ambitious father and the romantic name that he has given to her about being a Goddess swimmer, but also the child abuse from her former coach. Her upbringing is not a warm and fuzzy one nor is she surrounded by the female energy she needs other than the sea that propels her forward and gives her life. Yet she is forged through her personal setbacks with her magnificent talent as a swimmer. 

The films meticulously shows the process of doing great distance swimming and opens the world to the beauty of a woman at 60+ swimming. Without the money that this team had through sponsorship would she have been able to do what she did? The 40 people that are on her crew and the many people waiting at the finishing line when she's about to come in to take her last two steps are part of the dynamics making this more than a team effort. Everyone loves a winner and Diana is that winner. She's living everyone's dream - not only her own in that regard and conquers the sea and the sea animals which is wondrous to behold. 

Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is the helmer of the rhythmic unfolding of the narrative that weaves personal anecdote with the achievements of popular culture. She lends a personal touch to the swim with elements that one doesn't see in stories of famous male athletes. We need more films like this and this is the filmmaker who can do it. Julia Cox, script writer presents not just a linear tale of a great champion but flashbacks to setbacks and breakthroughs. On the way for the great swim, her “swim” as she calls it, are problems and the swim has to stop. 

The cinematography by Claudio Miranda shows a glorious sea filmed in Florida, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. There are also special effects and one wonders if Diana is in the grips of dementia as she envisions Taj Mahal at one point, streams of colors descending into the ocean like shooting stars, and a golden lasso Wonderwoman-like lifeline from her to the boat lit up like the great highway. It is a riveting vehicle for both Annette Bening and Jodie Foster. It’s not exactly the American Dream even if Nyad is shown on a box of "Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions". This film could be summed up as Nyad does at the end of her swim: "You are never too old to follow your dream, never give up, and it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team" -- far more than a string of cliché’s. Diana atones for many of the eccentricities of her personality in a swim set to classics like “Keeps me searching for a Heart of Gold”, which for this film is especially symbolic.

           © 2023 - Moira Jean Sullivan - 11/03/23
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