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Review: Nyad- The Story of a Stubborn Woman

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In the poignant words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?” These lines echo through the remarkable life of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, brilliantly portrayed in the Netflix sports drama “Nyad” (2023). At the age of 64, Nyad challenged preconceived notions about age and human potential, embarking on an extraordinary journey that spanned 110 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, enduring the tumultuous sea for an astounding 53 hours.

Nyad (2023), a sports drama now streaming on  Netflix showcases the tremendous feat of this same woman who had managed to cover the distance between Havana, in Cuba to Key West, in Florida (110 miles) in 53 hours. It is based on Diana Nyad’s memoir ‘Find a Way’. As a film, it is sometimes poised deliciously between a documentary and a feature film, starring Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster as her coach Bonnie Stoll. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi who won an Oscar for their 2018 documentary ‘Free Solo’ are known for their interest in intense drama on human achievements. 

Chin and Vasarhelyi say that they are well aware of the controversies and the perception that surround Nyad the marathon swimmer, which is why they were extra careful during the making of the film to at least somewhat address these issues. Annette Bening trained for a year and as Nyad she is fiery and fabulous, making Nyad’s stubborn journey so much more relatable, remarkable and strong. Also, watching Jodie Foster become Nyad’s coach Bonnie Stoll is delightful, and a definite treat for her fans. This then becomes a film with fantastic actors doing justice to some fantastic characters. 

Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida in 1978 in a steel shark cage but abandoned the mission midway due to strong swell. In 1979, she swam 102 miles from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida setting a record for both men and women for swimming the longest distance non-stop without a wetsuit. But thereafter she took a break from swimming and turned to sports journalism for thirty years only to come back to the sport in 2010 at the age of 60. After four failed attempts, Nyad finally achieved what she set out to do, in 2013. Though viewers are well aware of the outcome of Nyad’s attempts, the film does not fall short of nail biting and heartbreaking moments. The scene where Nyad refuses to abandon her swim due to bad weather but finally gives in, is a particularly touching moment in the film. Alexandre Michel Gérard Desplat’s background score adds the right edge to the intensity of the film’s narrative. 

Diana Nyad swimming in NYC for Sandy Relief. Courtesy Andrew Dallos

One of the film’s major successes lies in portraying the dichotomy of Nyad’s character—the selfish super-achiever juxtaposed with the superhuman-like tenacity of the sportswoman who refuses to give up. The narrative courageously addresses societal and sports-related perceptions about age, especially those concerning middle-aged women.

The film also gently highlights the fact that Nyad’s social life as a gay woman isn’t really the most fulfilling one, especially at a time when acceptance of her sexuality would have still been a problem. Flashbacks of the trauma she faced as a child who depended on her coach, forms a constant leitmotif for her ‘onward’ journey. Nyad, who has learnt to rely on only herself now realises that winning is eventually a team effort, and we see her speaking about the dedication of her team, and especially her friend towards the latter half of the film. 

Like most biopics made on super achievers, the story about Nyad is not only tremendous, but beautiful and vulnerable too. The film starts from her failures, her many disappointments, her being branded the loud-mouthed angry woman, but what makes the film and this journey really beautiful is the remarkable story of a woman searching for her own relevance at an uncertain middle. The fact that Nyad refuses to hang her boots when society asks her to, and instead takes the decision herself, timing herself and her abilities in a way only a very self-confident person can, is what makes this journey so special.
For adventure lovers, young sports enthusiasts, and lovers of the brave and the eclectic, this would be a must watch.

Images courtesy: IMDB & Flickr

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore based poet and writer. She has four books to her credit – The Hungryalists (Non-Fiction), One Dozen – Hasan Azizul Huq (Translation), Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen – Bengali Cinema’s First Couple (Non-Fiction) and Where Even The Present Is Ancient: Benaras (Poetry). Maitreyee is organiser of Bengaluru Poetry Festival, and managing editor of The Bangalore Review – a literary journal.

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