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"Nyad" 4K Review

Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have watched Netflix Original feature Nyad if not to check off a pair of items on my 2024 Oscars Death March watchlist, Annette Benning's Best Actress-nominated performance as marathon swimmer Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster's Best Supporting Actress-nominated turn as Bonnie Stoll, Nyad's best friend and trainer.

I'm not a fan of sports films and the trailer made it look like it was more interested in the LGBTQ+ angle Netflix tagged it as and even though Film Threat's review debunked the latter, their praise seemed more about the sports aspect. When the Oscar nominations were announced, I figured Benning's was mostly due to the most braving and stun thing an actress can do in Hollyweird: Appear old on screen. (Why else did Patricia Arquette win an Oscar for her shrill performance in Boyhood - of as I call it, Twelve Years A Movie - other than she aged 12 years on screen?)

So I wasn't going into watching Nyad with much optimism, but fortunately the performances make the formulaic and thin story worth watching. If you like sports movies, you'll probably enjoy it more.

The movie opens with a montage of actually footage of the real Nyad summarizing her life and swimming achievements culminating in her failed attempt to swim the 103 miles between Havana, Cuba and Key West, Florida at age 28. Then we meet Benning's Nyad at age 60, who despite having a career as a commentator on ABC's Wide World of Sports, is plagued by her failure to achieve her dream of the Cuba swim. She decides she's going to try and do it and taps Bonnie as her trainer.

What follows is a condensed telling of her five attempts to make the crossing between 2011 and 2013. As much an obstacle of her age and the distance is the wildlife including sharks and jellyfish (the effects of a attempt-ending run-in with a box jellyfish are pretty gnarly and nearly fatal) and the rapid and changeable currents of the Gulf Stream which requires an expert navigator which she find in John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans). He tells her the reason she failed before was from incorrect navigation, but the way she butts head against him almost leads to disaster when storms strike while they're in mid-swim.

And it's Nyad's obstinacy which overshadows her quest. Nyad is...let's go with "difficult" to get along with as she's intensely self-centered and focused on her dream, which makes her dismissive with those there to support her. At the birthday party, Bonnie tries to set her up with a woman, but when we finally see how she handles it by yammering on endlessly about herself while oblivious to the woman's increasing discomfort before finally asking the woman about herself sets up just what it's like to deal with Nyad. Naturally, this leads to everyone getting fed up with her crap and walking away after the fourth failure.

 Though it happened just a decade ago, I didn't remember whether Nyad actually succeeded in making the crossing (though they don't make many movies about people who fail, do they? SPOILER ALERT!) - I remembered her Carter-era try - so I was actually interested to see how it turned out.

First-time narrative film directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (who won a Best Documentary Oscar for Free Solo) do well with the training and swimming scenes as well as the dramatic beats between Nyad, Bonnie and John, but the flashbacks to her childhood with a broken home and sexual abuse from the swim coach she idolized are muddled and don't really seem relevant to the task at hand, but that's on the screenplay by rookie feature scribe Julia Cox, adapting one of Nyad's books, which is serviceable. The big finale is the most nail-biting moment of the film as you fear that all of Nyad's work could be for naught if an overexuberant onlooker touches her.

 But where it swims like a dolphin is in its trio of performances from Benning, Foster and Ifans. It's a fact that actresses like to get ugly for awards credibility whether imitating real people or not, but it's less a gimmick here than just what the role calls for. Nyad is a prickly personality and Benning isn't afraid to make her unlikeable while keeping us rooting for her to overcome the odds.

Foster is having a career resurgence suddenly between this and the just-concluded True Detective: Night Country after nearly two decades barely working in anything anyone has seen. (The last two movies of hers I'd seen were her odd role in the 2018 John Wick knockoff Hotel Artemis and 2013's Elysium where she delivered the worst performance of her career.) She's excellent in her supporting role and it's good to see the Academy understand that many great lead performances have equally critical supporting turns which deserve nomination. (How Christina Ricci was snubbed for her role in Monster which won Charlize Theron her Oscar is a perfect example of the Academy getting it wrong.) Here's to hoping she's looking to work more.

As with all "based on a true story" movies there are some serious corners cut like reducing the size of the support team from multiple vessels and about 40 crew to a single ship and a handful of crew which begs the question how are they staying awake? The controversy about the swim and how it was conducted isn't addressed lest it detract from the desired narrative.

While Nyad doesn't really elevate the sports biopic form to new heights, it's a pleasant, well-acted couple of hours which show that dedication and determination can overcome conventional wisdom and common sense at times. Provided a box jellyfish doesn't sting you to death.

On the technical front, the Dolby Vision and Atmos presentation didn't really seem to add much to the experience, so if you're not shelling out for the $23 tier of Netflix (those greedy jerks) then you're not missing much.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.


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