The Bottom Line
The subject’s superhuman endurance drives well put-together doc.
South By Southwest, Documentary Spotlight
AUSTIN — In 1978, swimmer Diana Nyad — a record-breaking champ at the peak of her abilities, tried to swim nonstop from Cuba to Key West. After more than 40 hours, she failed. She retired from the sport, going 30 years without swimming. Then she decided to try it again. Timothy Wheeler‘s watches as a 61 year-old tries to do something doctors tell her is probably not humanly possible. The jaw-dropping physical feats it captures will wow audiences, and Nyad’s stubborn personality makes for an engaging portrait, even if the film appears to leave much off the screen.
Wheeler establishes Nyad’s credentials in TV clips from a 1970s career that included a solo circumnavigation of Manhattan island and making the 102-mile swim from the Bahamas’ North Bimini Island to Juno Beach, Florida. But a relentless wind blew her off course on the Cuba-to-Florida trip she’d described as "the main course" of her career, adding so many miles to the route it couldn’t be completed. Before long, Nyad was a full-time sportscaster, interviewing others about their own physical accomplishments.
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Nyad encountered an unexpected "metaphysical funk" upon turning 60, though, and quietly returned to the pool to see if her body could still swim for hours on end. Soon she announced her intention to take a second crack at Cuba, rounding up sponsors and crew for what wound up being over a year of training.
Good friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (a former racquetball pro) becomes an almost equal part of the film here, offering tough love when whipping Nyad into shape but displaying real vulnerability at moments when the swimmer’s dream, not to mention her life, is in danger.
Those moments come soon enough when, halfway through the film, Nyad leaps off Cuban soil and — with a 35-person crew, a small fleet of support boats, and an electric shark-repelling gizmo at her side — heads toward Florida. Viewers who don’t know if she makes it or not will probably want to keep it that way, but suffice to say that Nyad suffers through pain that would surely cause anyone else to climb back on the boat, including multiple encounters with jellyfish whose toxins are known to cause respiratory failure, heart attack, and paralysis.
Working bits of her personal life into this endurance narrative, Wheeler lets Nyad tell of childhood sexual abuse in ways that are sometimes frustratingly open-ended. One wonders if the topic might be better omitted from the film altogether — as with the swimmer’s homosexuality, which is never discussed — but both filmmaker and subject seem to believe abuse is integral to her never-say-die ethos. Viewers won’t need to understand what makes her tick, though, to be astonished by what they see.