What if every movie wasn’t a biopic? What if movies about real people and real events could just be dramas? Perhaps that could have launched NYAD, the Netflix Original movie directed by documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, into excellence. But alas, the incredible performances by Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll are curtailed by a bizarre and fruitless fixation on depicting Nyad’s past, bloating the movie’s runtime and diluting the triumphant sports movie situated inside of this biopic.
For the two hours you’re watching NYAD, you have to forget about anything you may have heard or read about her record-breaking swim from Cuba to Key West in 2013. The real-life story is mired in controversy that has no conclusion and detracts from the power of Nyad’s story. This isn’t a movie about breaking a record. It’s about doing the impossible, about refusing to give up even when the world has given up on you, and above all, it’s about love and friendship. It’s about waking up one day with a vision and refusing to stop until you’ve reached it.
This is the absolute hallmark of a good sports movie. Victory over impossible odds is more than enough to make a good story. Of course, having an attachment to the characters overcoming those odds is a plus, and building stakes and sentiment are essential to developing a relationship with the characters as a viewer. But NYAD wrongly surmises the best way to do so is with extensive flashbacks, shot through odd tunnels of light that are meant to elicit a sense of the past but quickly just become aggravating to look at. A few flashbacks would have been fine. But we hear her father talk about her name a few too many times, and the repeated scenes from her childhood building up to a big, obvious reveal about her coach felt egregious.
Nyad’s relationship with her coach was obviously formative and deserves to be explained correctly and sensitively. But it neither needed the sheer number of scenes it took up to make itself known nor did it need to be depicted so vividly to make its point. NYAD is, at no point, interested in making a direct correlation between this childhood trauma and Nyad’s motivations a lifetime later. So why linger on it so hard? The flashbacks are also mixed constantly with real-life footage and audio, which sometimes works excellently to lend excitement to the swimming, but more often further muddles the experience of watching the movie itself as too many different mediums switch back and forth rapidly.
There are also a few too many extensive computer-animated segments that distract terribly from the swim. Most look cheesy and only one of them adds anything subtantively artistic to the movie. They feel designed to extend the already oddly-paced story and give viewers something to look at besides the water, which is a fair assessment of the audience’s visual stimulation needs. It’s just not executed well. There area. few great underwater shots, however. The camera tracks very creatively from above water to underwater from time to time and offers some great fully underwater moments as well.
For all of those issues, the movie has some excellent bones. Bening is an absolute force in this movie, giving a powerfully inspirational performance without ever making the audience completely lionize Nyad. The character is constructed and portrayed perfectly as somebody with unwavering determination but a challenging personality to contend with. Foster plays her foil precisely, not standing out as an equally memorable performance, but giving life to an equally powerful character from beginning to end.
Because like any good sports drama, it’s an amazing feeling when she triumphs, but the triumph isn’t because she worked hard and got lucky. It’s because Nyad surrounded herself with people who would push, motivate, and protect her at every moment. Nyad’s character arc is robust and nuanced, making her ultimate accomplishment all the more exhilarating.
A trimmed-down version of NYAD that saw itself as a sports drama first instead of biopic, with fewer flashbacks, fewer sidesteps to archival footage, and fewer animated sequences would have been exceptional. Instead, we have an incredible performance and triumphant sports movie trapped inside the overbaked shell of an increasingly tiresome biopic formula.
NYAD is streaming on Netflix November 3rd.
A trimmed-down version of NYAD that saw itself as a sports drama first instead of biopic, with fewer flashbacks, fewer sidesteps to archival footage, and fewer animated sequences would have been exceptional.