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TIFF 2023 Review: NYAD – “It’s about the journey as much as the accomplishment.”

Annette Bening in NYAD. Courtesy of TIFF

“A diamond is just a lump of coal that stuck with it,” a poster on the wall says.

After 30 years of not swimming, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) is kind of feeling like that lump – all potential and no longer feeling that shine.  Just having turned 60 she is having some deep feelings about aging, despite her many successes.  In her younger days, she swam around Manhattan Island and completed the distance between the Bahamas and Florida.  She’s done some sportscasting, and she’s traveled the world, but there is one challenge that has always eluded her, one long-distance swim that she tried some 30 years ago and failed.  And that’s the 110-mile distance between Cuba and Florida.

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Nyad actually translates in Greek to ‘water nymph’ as Diana will consistently remind you.  Swimming seemed to be her destiny.  And she succeeded, even with a history of sexual abuse from a coach, which the film alludes to but never makes the focus.  To return to this long-distance sport after so much time away takes not only the determination of one woman but the determination of an entire team including her best friend Bonnie (Jodie Foster) and their navigator John (Rhys Ifans).  And despite their objections, she wants to do it without the protection of a shark cage, leaving herself open to potential predators of the ocean.

NYAD seems a very natural transition to narrative work for documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.  Their previous films, the 2018 Oscar-winning Free Solo and 2021’s The Rescue were both critically acclaimed documentary features that also focussed on people defying the odds.  You can see that occasionally they will work in footage from the actual Diana Nyad, swimming where the facial features are not too visible or from the back, which seamlessly blends with Bening’s work.  The effect adds authenticity to the film.

The ending to NYAD is predictable, especially if you were reading the news ten years ago, but like their other films, it’s about the journey as much as the accomplishment.  However, there was still a lot of tension in The Rescue and Free Solo (which literally made me sweat so much I had to pause to take a break), which isn’t as pressing here.  There are some moments, like the one that will make box jellyfish your newest nightmare, that adds to the unpredictability, but unlike their documentary work, this feature lacks the same level of suspense.

What buoys NYAD are the performances of Bening and Foster, perhaps the best on-screen duo out of the festival this year.  The two actors just click.  Both physically transformed themselves for the role, Foster rocking a 6-pack I’ll never have and Bening pure muscle, swimming for close to a year (and still does to this day) to prepare.  It’s a level of commitment that you get when you sign these experienced actors on your film and it’s remarkable to see the resemblances to their real-life counterparts.  Yet, for all the impressive physical work they have to do, it’s their onscreen friendship that stands out and their scenes together are highlights.  Bening may yet see herself in potential awards contention this year.  But, if they ever make another film together again I guarantee I’ll be first in line to see it.

NYAD had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival September 1, 2023 and its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 12th, with screenings continuing this weekend.  For more information go to  It will have a limited theatrical run before hitting Netflix November 3, 2023.

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