I really admire Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s work, whose film Free Solo is arguably one of the finest documentaries ever made. They have a sense of capturing the human spirit on celluloid in a way that is very non-obtrusive. Perhaps their documentary filmmaking experience helps, and it’s clearly visible in their new film, the biopic titled Nyad. It’s a story chronicling Diana Nyad’s journey—the same Diana who rose to fame as the greatest long-distance swimmer in the 1970s. The film primarily focuses on the part when Nyad pumped herself up for one last attempt to achieve her unfulfilled dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida, and that too in her 60s. The result is an interesting look at the idea of success, meaning, and the masochism of pursuing excellence.
Jimmy and Elizabeth are drawn towards this quality of pursuit—this angle of the greatness of a performance. They are drawn to characters that have a disdain for just ‘being’. Maybe that’s why they zeroed in on this story, where Diana Nyad has all the qualities they like to explore in their work. In Free Solo, Alex Honnold was ready to give his life by trying to climb a rock without a harness, trying to achieve a feat considered impossible by many. Here, Diana Nyad tries to swim the Cuba-Florida channel in her 60s, which could prove lethal. But the lethality here is not in the rocks or the ocean, but in these personalities themselves. They just have to go that extra mile, even if it means death. Its absurdity is profound, and yet there is something so human in these stories that they make for great cinema.
The story begins when we see an irritated Nyad going about her days, avoiding all the things that had ‘mediocre’ written all over them. Winning was everything for Nyad, but there was that one dream—the one that got away! One that she hadn’t won, and it was beginning to haunt her now, considering she was closer to death than to life. Her disdain for mediocrity had been instilled in her at a very impressionable young age by her coach, who also molested her. Nyad’s father wasn’t her biological one, and even then she believed in the myth of Nyad, a surname that literally means ‘water nymph’. She was destined, she thought, to complete this superhuman task of crossing the Cuba-Florida channel. So what if she couldn’t do it at 28, when she was young and strong? She could do it now when she was 60 and couldn’t even stand the cold ocean for a few hours!
The term ‘crazy’ doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the level of desire Nyad had for swimming and accomplishing the mammoth task. Her whole life couldn’t provide her with the meaning that this 3-day endeavor (if it was successful) could provide. Alex in “Free Solo” was emotionally supported but questioned as well by his girlfriend. Here, Nyad had Bonnie Stoll by her side, who was there for her, even at the expense of feeling used sometimes. Now that’s a relationship worth exploring. One may label it with all sorts of pseudo-psychological titles, but the reality is that one has inner desires and subconscious motivations that just make them who they are. Bonnie loved Nyad despite the fact that Nyad was sometimes incapable of being grateful. Nyad sometimes just placated Bonnie so that she would help her achieve her dream, which might have never happened if Bonnie hadn’t proved useful in her pursuit.
Here, Nyad gets a backstory that is superbly laced in with the swimming sequences, where the hazy memories of a distant time, when Nyad went through a chaotic and traumatic adolescence, come to the forefront and help us understand some very hidden parts of Diana Nyad, the figure known primarily for her marathon swims. We, as a culture, never quite understand the deep motivations behind people like Nyad and Alex. They are anomalies to us, outliers, to whom we are indifferent to or perhaps seek inspiration from, but the kind of life that produces this maniacal desire to lay their life on the line is one that is very hard to comprehend.
Directors Jimmy and Elizabeth are aware that they don’t have to try too hard to demystify such people. It can never really be done. Hence, it’s great that the film focuses on the present and becomes a story about friendship as well. Without that aspect, the film would be a dry exploration of the abyss of human psychology. There are needle drops that I didn’t expect to fit the narrative. For example, ‘Hello, Darkness, my old friend’ seemed odd, but just after a split second, I realized there couldn’t have been a better choice. The film’s tone is well set, the characters are impeccably grounded in the universe of the film, and the movie doesn’t cause unnecessary conflicts to over-dramatize things. Staying clear of over-sentimentality, there is genuine humor in the film, coming straight out of the characters’ worldviews.
One could make a pretty opposite film here as well. One that would focus on one person’s adamance over doing something suicidal and hence putting everyone else at risk of ending up emotionally scarred. There may be an exploration of how someone deliberately ignores the fact that they are inflicting pain on others, because if they change, then their talent or their sense of ‘mission’ may vanish. The balance or difference between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ and where one finds true meaning is a theme that Jimmy and Elizabeth won’t stop exploring, I’m sure. And they won’t be limited to just sports personalities or artists who sublimate their wounds into extreme art sometimes. The directors, along with the cinematographer Claudio Miranda, have created an isolated yet universal film here, scratching the surface of the sportswoman who simply cannot live without her vocation. And finally, I bow down to the artist that Annette Bening is, alongside Jodie Foster, who makes Diana and Bonnie seem like real people, unlike some other actors who make even real people seem artificial by their performances. An Oscar contender for next year? I definitely think so.