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Bening and Foster swim laps in NYAD: TIFF Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

It’s hard to say who’s doing the most impressive work in the new sports biography NYAD, though one thing is clear: this is both the best sports movie and best project from Netflix showing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

You may or may not remember American long distance swimmer Diana Nyad (played here ruthlessly by Annette Bening) but after seeing this terrific biopic of her greatest test, you won’t ever forget her. The film follows her greatest challenge: becoming the first person to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Florida in open water at age 64!

Co-directors and real-life partners Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are no strangers to sports in film, but they’ve spent their 20 year career as documentarians, including 2018’s Oscar winning Free Solo, meaning NYAD is their courageous plunge into narrative features.

I’m pleased to say their work is a great success. Their skill in documentary is well-suited to the biography genre, and they’ve edited dozens of real clips and interviews from Nyad’s real life and career to supplement the more personal scenes skilled performed by the talented cast.

While the conception and editing of Varsarhelyi and Chin are great, the talent of the three principal actors are stratospherically incredible. Bening is perhaps giving a career best performance as Diana, including dozens of brutal scenes in the open water showing her fortitude and pain.

Rhys Ifans is also stellar as their navigator John Bartlett, but the brightest star is surprisingly Jodie Foster as Diana’s best friend turned coach Bonnie, grappling with the conflict of encouraging her best friend while confronting that this dangerous swimming stunt will definitely injure Nyad and possibly kill her.

There are so many supplementary themes other than the obvious triumph of never giving up: there’s female friendship, a lesbian sports story, the ethics of boundaries and safety, the trauma of abuse in sports training - the list goes on and on. All of these subjects get just the right amount of screen time so they can build Diana’s fascinating character.

If there’s one element I liked least, it would be the four or five etherial, fantasy like scenes exaggerating the meditation Nyad would enter while swimming for hours on end. One or two of these would have brought the point across, but the rest feel silly and out of place with the rest of the film.

One thing I loved was watching the edited maps and timers in the screen during Nyad’s swims, so we the audience had clear cues to follow Diana’s progress. 

If this is a story you haven’t heard, you won’t be disappointed in NYAD’s big screen adaptation. Bening, Foster, Varsarhelyi and Chin are a dream team that easily deliver the best sports movie in years.


8 out of 10

PG, 2hrs. Biography Sports Drama.

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

Starring Annette Bening, Jodie Foster and Rhys Ifans.

Opens in select theatres (including Oakville) on Friday, Oct. 20 and begins streaming on Netflix for subscribers on Nov. 3. Also plays TIFF again on Sept. 14, 16 and 17, with tickets available here.