Like many or most of you, I’ve watched Annette Bening and Jodie Foster give fine performances for years and years, but I got so wrapped up in NYAD –and their exceptional work—that I allowed myself to believe that they really were the women they were playing. That’s called suspension of disbelief, and it made viewing the movie a truly emotional experience for me.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are documentary filmmakers (Free Solo, Return to Space) and mountain climbers, a felicitous choice to bring Julia Cox’s screenplay to life. They are also married, which gives them an understanding of relationships. There’s no substitute for life experience, and while Diana Nyad’s story is unlike theirs in many of its particulars, they clearly connected to it in a meaningful way.

Sports biopics tend to fall into one of two categories: someone who scores a victory unexpectedly or someone who tries their best and is defeated but goes down swinging. Diana Nyad’s story doesn’t fit into any pigeonhole, nor does the woman herself or her close friendship with Bonnie Stoll. That’s another reason the movie works so well. I’ll admit I didn’t remember the bullet points of Nyad’s career so I was a perfect audience for this highly dramatic re-enactment of her attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida after thirty years of retirement. I didn’t know what was coming next. (It also doesn’t hurt that I readily relate to a film about two senior citizens.)

The feeling of verisimilitude extends to the supporting actors as well, primarily Rhys Ifans as Nyad’s sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued navigator. He, too, inhabits this figure completely and adds to the feeling of being there with the swimmer’s intrepid support team, who push themselves almost as hard as she does—and suffer the same devastating feeling of defeat when she doesn’t reach her goal.

Not being an athlete, let alone a marathon type of guy, I can only imagine what it must be like to push yourself beyond normal boundaries. But this film gave me ample food for thought…and I think it’s terrific.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024