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Review: Grit And Determination In Open Waters Define One Of Annette Bening’s Best Performances In ‘NYAD’

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin unveiled the international premiere of the Netflix biographical drama NYAD at the Toronto International Film Festival, based on Diana Nyad’s book Find a Way

Annette Bening has been the consummate performer for decades, churning out acclaimed work in iconic roles in American Beauty, The Grifters, and The Kids Are All Right. She has collaborated with famous faces for most of her career, chief among them her husband, Warren Beatty, and earned four nominations from the Academy Awards for her skills on the big screen. Her turn as the titular long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad in NYAD opposite Jodie Foster might give the 65-year-old actor her fifth go at the elusive Oscar.

NYAD is mainly set between 2010 and 2013 as Annette Bening stars as Diana Nyad when the then-60-year-old swimmer decided to come out of retirement to achieve one of her life’s goals: Swim from Cuba to the Florida shores. The feat has never been done before, and Nyad herself attempted the 100-mile open water journey 30 years before to no avail. Several others have tried their hand at making history over the years, but Nyad is the only one to come close. By her side the entire time has been best friend, fellow lesbian, and coach Bonnie (Foster).

In order to break the record and complete her goal, Diana must swim for over 60 hours straight without the aid of a shark cage alongside dangerous sea creatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and sleep deprivation. She enlists the help of professional navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) and attempts the swim several times within a 3-year period. The sexagenarian is often stubborn, selfish, frustrating to be around, and brash. But there is no “i” in “team,” and Nyad learns some crucial lessons about using the village around her to outperform the competition.

Taking a true story like Diana Nyad’s unbelievable swims is a vast undertaking, but Bening is entirely up to the task. The actor reflects Nyad’s strength and resilience, often repeating the line that the last name “Nyad” actually means water nymph. The character, and the real-life person she’s based on, shows no signs of slowing down despite her age and history building walls all around her. 

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin splice in archival footage of Diana Nyad’s interviews and achievements throughout the film, making a case for Nyad herself to narrate her own fictionalized depiction. A master stroke in storytelling, Nyad’s personality, demeanor, and determination shine through even in challenging moments. While the film’s primary focus revolves around a small but significant section of Nyad’s life, the footage, and filmed flashbacks, give context to her experiences with sexual abuse, creating space for her queer identity and the adversities she’s overcome that bring her to this moment.

Annette Bening is nothing short of marvelous, portraying a flawed but persistent character hell-bent on achieving a goal she’s dreamed of all her life. Jodie Foster gives a solid supporting performance, some of the best acting work the two-time Academy Award winner has put out in over a decade. The two women score massive points for their characters in moments of absolute intensity, giving hope for their third act in life to be the most influential. Guiding Nyad to victory creates challenges, but Bening and Foster make for a fantastic team of equals, in the water and out. They are both ferocious even when Julia Cox’s script doesn’t give much room for the two women to dazzle, which is yet another achievement.

When everyone told her she was foolish even to attempt the seemingly impossible swim, Diana Nyad stood up straight, dove headfirst into the water, and found a way to prove she wasn’t a lunatic. She became a household name for her efforts, even in times she had to quit and try again. Perseverance is often the key to success, and Diana Nyad’s flag of perseverance reflects every color of the rainbow.

Annette Bening has persevered her entire career, and with NYAD, she just might be rewarded for it.

NYAD will stream on Netflix on November 3, 2023.

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