Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi’s Nyad is aggressively bad. The kind of bad where you have to wonder how it passed through the eyes of two otherwise-competent filmmakers (known for their documentary work), not to mention an entire production team and studio. With a Netflix logo, the bar is already lowered beneath what would be suitable for a theatrical release, but this biopic suggests something whipped together with minimal thought––from the words on the page given to the actors to basic blocking to how we move from scene to scene. Whatever skills they used to create the dizzying spectacle of Meru and Free Solo, Chin and Vaserhelyi feel like they got completely lost in the translation to narrative cinema.

The staging of both Annette Benning and Jodie Foster, two of Hollywood’s most lauded and storied actresses giving absolute career-worst performances, is akin to a Disney Channel afterschool special. There is a complete lack of cohesion between cuts and movement, along with scenes that render the movie totally confused for its first hour. We get a litany of found footage of Christine Nyad’s various swimming feats as covered by news and then a few choice interviews of the woman herself as she prepares for her more daring feat yet––swimming from Cuba to Key West, a swim that no one has ever done and will take a grand total of 110 miles.

Benning tries to capture the erraticism of Nyad, the single-track vision of an uber-competitive athlete who doesn’t take no for an answer and who is willing to drag and sink everyone around her––especially her best friend and trainer Bonnie Stoll (Foster) and the captain of her support ship John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), down with her. Dialogue written for her is so choppy and unnatural, as if stitched from disparate recordings using iMovie. Nyad and Bonnie talk to each other like they don’t exist in the same room. Their arguments are repetitive and move generally askew with zero dynamics or chemistry between the two despite their long-standing friendship, which is mentioned comically almost as many times as Johnny and Mark’s in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

The visual approach bears similar monotony. There’s rudimentary over-the-shoulder shots and basic two shots with a completely flat palette that somehow manage to render the beautiful seaside of St. Maarten and Cuba uninteresting. Nyad is not only a tough watch for its terrible pacing and writing, but also its lack of cinematic sensibility. The sense of peril and futility of the central physical endeavor doesn’t exist in Nyad the way it did in Meru or Free Solo; ironically the only moments with true sense of the gravity of Nyad’s accomplishments are actual news clips that Chin and Vaserhelyi incorporate. It’s almost as if they know their own strengths as filmmakers and are actively working against them throughout.

Nyad screened at TIFF, opens in theaters on October 20, and arrives on Netflix on November 3.

Grade: D-

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