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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dan Webster: Superb acting, dramatic screenwriting take front stage in Netflix’s ‘Nyad’ film

Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in a scene from the movie “Nyad.”  (Liz Parkinson/Netflix)
By Dan Webster For The Spokesman-Review

Diana Nyad is a name familiar to anyone who follows marathon swimming. Let’s be honest, though: That’s a pretty small assemblage.

Others of us know Nyad as a television commentator, the author of four books and as a motivational speaker. Still, it was her career as a long-distance swimmer that earned Nyad her greatest fame – a career highlighted by her five attempts, and eventual success at age 64, to swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida.

That feat is what the filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin focus on in their Netflix streaming feature film titled simply “Nyad.”

You’d suspect that with two first-rate actresses cast in the film’s key roles – Annette Bening as Nyad, Jodie Foster as her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll – that co-directors Vasarheyl and Chin would start out with a distinct advantage. And, of course, they do.

Bening, a four-time Oscar nominee, is superb as Nyad, capturing the woman’s abrasive and obsessive temperament – the very kind of temperament that many high-achieving athletes possess. Foster, also a four-time Oscar nominee (but also a two-time winner), is Bening’s match as the exact kind of friend, supportive but demanding, that Nyad needs.

Having good actors, though, is no guarantee that any first-time narrative filmmakers would have the skill needed to direct a convincing feature. That view applies even two people such as Vasarhelyi and Chin who co-directed a pair of acclaimed documentaries, 2021’s “The Rescue” and 2018’s Oscar-winning “Free Solo.”

Which is where the teamwork that directors depend on comes in. Screenwriter Julia Cox has crafted a script that, yes, is filled with embellishments that are typical of Hollywood’s penchant for “dramatic effect” – a shark attack that never happened, for example.

Despite this, Cox manages to capture the strained relationship that the self-absorbed Nyad has with everyone around her. Even more surprising, though, she is able to make believable the crew’s willingness to help Nyad achieve what, following four previous failures, seems like the impossible.

Because while two people had done the swim previously, no one had done it the way Nyad intended – with no assistance and, most important, no shark cage. And while the question of whether she actually abided by her “unassisted” claim is still being debated, nobody denies the fact that on the afternoon of Sept. 2, 2013 – 53 hours after departing Cuba – Nyad stumbled onto the beach at Key West.

Several film productions over time have been set on the open sea, and the tales of trouble surrounding such projects as “Waterworld” and “Cutthroat Island” are legendary. “Nyad,” it seems, avoided a similar fate. In the end, what Vasarhelyi and Chin have put on the screen does manage to create a palpable feeling of suspense.

To do that with an outcome already so well-documented seems almost as impossible as Nyad’s effort itself.