Friday, February 2, 2024


Leave Them Wanting More
"Jesus, Mary Oliver!..." *sigh* (Can You See it? Can You See It?)
On her 60th birthday, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) is in a funk. She doesn't want a party—she gets one, anyway, by her friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). It's been awhile since she was famed for her marathon swimming. For 30 years she's been working for ABC Sports and she's left with the feeling of "where's the excellence?" She has finally gone through her mother's things, collected after her death, and found a book of poetry that she starts obsessing over. She does that...obsessing.
One of the things that she obsesses over is one thing she didn't do in her life—swim the 103 miles between Cuba and Key West, Florida. Her attempts in the 1970's were unsuccessful given currents and unfavorable conditions; they made all of her efforts time-consuming and energy-wasting, and success is measured by strokes and calories, wasting any of them you increase the number of miles and the time needed to do it so that the goal becomes increasingly out of reach. Now, she's determined to do any means necessary.
Despite being over 60 years old.
Nyad, on Netflix, tells the story of how that obsession takes over the thoughts and life of the swimmer, and, in turns spills over into the lives of her crew assisting in the effort. It may look like a solo effort, but that it's to be done in open ocean complicates matters. Sailors on perfectly fine boats have sunk, gotten lost, or merely disappeared without a trace in the area, and she's just one person, one tiny speck, in a big ocean. Without supervision, navigation, occasional nourishment, one person is sure to be swamped by time and tide—not to mention the predators that share the space and care more about feeding that making records. That crew needs to observe and document, as well, or the achievement won't be recognized. Going solo? That's not a goal; it's a death wish.
So, Nyad trains, day and night. At the same time, Stoll assists in looking for funding, sponsorship, and a crew, taking into account all the factors that presented Nyad from accomplishing the goal previously. Before, she'd done it swimming in a moving shark-tank. She puts the nix on that immediately. Also, the navigation she'd relied on had her swimming off-course, so she finds a local navigator/boat-runner John Bartlett (
Rhys Ifans) who knows the waters between Cuba and Key West so well as to be an irritant—he's not going to make a mistake and will err on the side of caution, rather than blindly plunge forward (something Nyad would do, even if not hampered by stress-induced poor judgment). 
And for her coach, it's Stoll. No one else. Not so much for expertise on sports medicine—she can hire people for that...and does—but because she knows Nyad so well, the bad and the good. Friends for 30 years, and having dated ("for like 30 seconds") back in the past, she knows Nyad's strengths...and weaknesses—it's why they're merely devoted friends—and knows what the swimmer is capable of—endurance, obstinance, and mania—and can negotiate the rocky shoals of Nyad's narcissism and insufferability to see the right thing and do the right thing when Nyad's tunnel-vision can't. It will test their friendship, despite their long history, to the breaking point, just as Nyad's tenacity is capable of breaking her own endurance.
Which is where the actresses playing the leads come in. Both Benning and Foster are acknowledged as being legendary thespians, but their work here, separately and together, is a notch above what you already expect. Foster, for her part, plays Stoll as a long-suffering aide-de-camp, team-player and punching bag, not afraid to call out magical thinking and just BS, but manages to do it in such a breezy and utilitarian way that one can't begrudge her. One sees the paradox etched into Foster's face as she uses facial muscles that she hasn't flexed in a lifetime of performances. And her bantering with Benning perpetually feels like she's making it up on the spot. It hardly feels like a performance, practiced and perfected, as it does a free-wheeling dance of improvisation. There isn't any past fall-backs here; Foster is exploring new ground.
And Benning? You always knew she was "that" good. But, here she commits to the physical demands and the sheer blinkerdliness of Nyad's obsession. She understands that Nyad's devotion to her own physical perfection to be ready for such a feat makes her such a creature of the internal that the outside world is a bit of an irrelevance and frequently merely a road-block. She spends so much time in her own head that empathy could be a symptom of weakness and her own care-and-feeding of her ego and importance becomes a side-effect of her strenuous preparation.
She's in another world than everybody else. She has to be to endure the tortures and the distractions that will come from the mechanical rigors of moving arms forward and back and kicking for every inch of forward momentum. She may protest that the sea is the perfect place for her to be, but she works and practices and trains as if its her enemy, the more dangerous element of a world that potentially blocks her way. Only in her head is she safe, despite the pain in her muscles, the cramps in her legs, the building weariness and decomposition that she is only too aware of and fights to ignore.
You got to be crazy to do something like that, and Benning leans in to the crazy, quite recklessly, not caring that it might sacrifice audience sympathy (after all, Nyad, herself, wouldn't). It's gutsy and unapologetic and just plain fierce.
The directors, 
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, need something like that. This is their first dramatic film—they've only done documentaries before this, one of which was Free Solo, so they know about athletic rigors and the discipline and the potential for mental anarchy that can ensue. Athletes themselves—they're avid rock-climbers as Free Solo demonstrated—they know about risk and discipline and distraction (a good section of Free Solo was the crew discussing how they could make their work not be a distraction for climber Alex Honnold) and they do a good job of creating the painful monotony (without over-doing it for the audience) of such a challenge while imagining the head-space that Nyad must make for herself. It's a nice "all things considered" approach that only raises the stakes and ensures audience involvement. You fret. Which means the filmmakers have done their job.
It's an amazing piece of work and it would be nice ("nice") if there was some recognition for this during awards season. But, one has to admit, that it's likely to be swamped by its considerable competition. You can't train for that.
Time and tide, after all...

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