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Telluride Film Review: ‘Nyad’ is a Crowdpleaser and an Inspirational True Life Sports Story


How you create excitement from a predetermined outcome is, when it works, the mark of effective filmmakers. It’s easy to drain the heart from these sorts of inspirational true life sports stories, but Nyad is not one of those movies. It has an old-fashioned feel to it, but the thrilling approach by directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi keep you hanging on every stroke our heroic swimmer makes. This is one of the bigger crowdpleasers here at the Telluride Film Festival.

Nyad overcomes the potentially unlikable nature of the central character by giving her someone great to bounce off of. Watching Annette Bening and Jodie Foster spar with each other is a real pleasure. They keep you invested in the movie, until the third act builds to climax that makes you want to stand up and cheer.


This is the story of distance swimmer Diana Nyad (Bening). Having set all sorts of records, in 1978, 28 year old Nyad attempted to do the impossible: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Havana to Key West. She wasn’t able to accomplish that goal, and now in her 60s, it’s haunting her. Nyad’s best friend Bonnie Stoll (Foster) knows something is up, but she’s shocked when an out of the blue announcement is made. At 60 years old, she wants to give it another shot.

Convincing Stoll to be her coach, they recruit an expert navigator in the crusty John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans). Preparations begin, with everyone doubting her. Of course, there’s a matter of historical record in terms of what ultimately happens, but watching it unfold builds in excitement. What initially seems like a device that could grow old, Nyad in the water becomes thrilling.

Annette Bening may well be in the Oscar conversation here once again. She doesn’t shy away from the off-putting aspects of her title character, which helps to set her apart. Bening makes it very much about the passion of accomplishing a dream, but she doesn’t ever let Nyad off easily. Her chemistry with Jodie Foster is fantastic, which keeps things from ever going too far. Foster is a ray of sunshine here. Rhys Ifans gets more to do than usual and is very solid. Supporting players include Eric T. Miller, Anna Harriette Pittman, Johnny Solo, and more.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi make their narrative debuts here after some incredible documentary work. Nyad feels very akin to Free Solo, with a similarly prickly protagonist. Working from a script by Julia Cox that hits the expected notes, the direction manages to find excitement in swimming. Plus, Bening, Foster, and Ifans are doing some strong work, setting them up for success.

Nyad goes exactly where you think it will go. The fun is in watching it depicted in an exciting manner, as well as watching Bening and Foster in action. Netflix could easily have a populist success on their hands here. The film isn’t particularly flashy, but it’s rock solid, making for a very pleasing effort here in Telluride.

SCORE: ★★★


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Written by Joey Magidson

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