(Written by Allison Brown)
Emerging along with a sea of fresh and resurfaced controversy surrounding its titular subject, Netflix’s Nyad makes a brief appearance at NewFest before dropping in limited theatres this weekend. With even its directors, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, at the helm refusing to affirm its basis on a true story, one has to wonder why this got the green light in the first place when both WOWSA (World Open Water Swimming Association) and Guinness World Records have refused to recognize the athlete for her cross-regional success. Nevertheless, we press on, as the quality of the narrative execution, factual or not, is the topic at hand. While high on entertainment value, Nyad has many faults that cannot be ignored.
As the directing team’s first feature, it is no surprise that archive footage essentially becomes inseparable from the rest of the piece. A strange choice is made to rely on documentary-style storytelling to portray peak 28-year-old Diana. Did the filmmakers invest their entire budget in casting Jodie Foster and Annette Bening, and did not want to spend any more time or money in finding their younger counterparts? In this way, both Stoll and Nyad come off as very surface level characters, and we do not get to see much of their background. It would be great to explore how the duo became friends, and what inspired Nyad to become so invested in her dream to swim from Cuba to Florida in the first place. The decision to ignore the entirety of her life aside from fleeting interactions with her coach and a sexual assault reduces the accomplishments of a woman we should be honoring. Her successes are, as a result, indirectly attributed to an inherent rebellion towards one abhorrent man from her past.
Early on, thought-provoking discussion is introduced about ageism in modern society, but it falls to the wayside too soon. Narrative is hyper focused on the actual swimming trials, not allowing much character development or context. It soon becomes repetitive, and could have easily been trimmed by thirty minutes. Rather than showing the entirety of each failure, perhaps we could have seen her first attempt in her twenties to see why she initially gave up, a brief brush up on her life in between, and what brought her to feel like she was stuck in her sixties. Better development on each side character’s work that led to or detracted from her eventual success may have added more diversity to the storyline as well. There is so much potential of fascinating subjects in what is left untold; even including bits of the controversy would have made for a much more compelling film. The final result we were given just feels lazy and uninspired.
Visual choices are equally odd. Cinematography can be so stunning when the ocean is a subject. Instead, zoomed-in bubble shots, odd technicolor hazy flashbacks, and bizarre underwater hallucinatory CGI are the only attempts at creativity. Despite the large number of the letdowns matching Nyad’s own in her journey, it is still a fun film to watch with tension and action galore. Nyad may not be peak cinema, but well worth a watch when it comes to streaming.
Nyad screened at NewFest on October 15th, and completes its marathon swim when it finally reaches Netflix after its festival run on November 3rd.