Review: Movie on The Depth of Elite Sporty Lesbians

Sarah and I recently watched Nyad, the biographical sports drama of swimmer Diana Nyad starring Annette Benning and Jodie Foster. This movie I am glad to have watched, but also feel my preconceptions about elite sports and record breaking attempts are confirmed. Totally. Not in a good way. So here’s my review.

The film picks up when professional swimmer Diana Nyad is in her sixties and decides to revisit her failed attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Five times before she (sort of) gets it done. Nyad’s determination to go out on top is fierce. Her repeated failures to acknowledge the toll on her crew and friends is just something we expect from our great people.

The movie cuts back and forth with her childhood relationship with her adopted Cuban father. It also dances around Nyad’s abuse at the hands of her swimming coach. These events are supposed to underscore her swagger and relentless attempts, traits we admire in Michael Phelps, but find off-putting in a woman.

Then there is the ageism. Diana and Bonnie are 60 and 57. They have entire lifetimes of experiences we never know. They are vibrant and alive, they are gay, they seem to tell us that being older women is the worst end of the deal. Everyone counts them out.

I am (still) not a fan. In part that’s due to the elevation of the sport person without acknowledging the legion of worker bees whose contributions were essential. Think Sherpa guides at Mt. Everest.

There’s also the ripple effects of pushing a human body beyond human endurance. For example, how many parents unknowingly put their children in the hands of predators to help them achieve elite status. It happened at Penn State, Ohio State, and USA Gymnastics. Likely many other training s paces.

And frankly, I could care less if someone swims from Florida to Cuba. So what? Or more to the point, what about the helpless people who tried that crossing in desperation without sponsors or custom equipment?

In this film, adult Diana did not seem to derive any joy from swimming. Young Diana shown in flashbacks did until her coach molested her.

Diana’s need to prove something to her ghosts was the story, not the power, grace, and beauty of swimming. And that’s a sad reason to brutalize your body so readily. I wonder if she ever found that joy?

Annette Benning was great. From hair and clothing to her bearing, her Diana was a vibrant obnoxious no-apologies woman. She was definitely queer. And she had a beautiful friendship with Jodie Foster’s Bonnie forged in their shared history, not sexual tension.

That’s what I took away from this movie, not some sense of triumphing over the odds. A movie about two older lesbians doing something sporty is actually against the odds, especially starring A-listers.

Maybe I’m biased because the luxury of accomplishing something deemed impossible is reserved for the elite. Most of us triumph by simply surviving. The sequence shots of Diana acquiring more and more gear for her swim was ludicrous – a special gel, electric shark shockers, a mask to repel jelly fish, a full body jellyfish repeller, etc. She rejected the shark tank, but agreed to have other human beings jump into the shark waters to drive them away. Isn’t that a human shark cage?

Diana Nyad is not likeable. She oozes privilege, but also the trauma of abuse and professional bias. I have been sitting with a new appreciation for women athletes in my generation finding relevancy after they are no longer young or competitive. But they can still come across as jerks.

Actually, I don’t know if she enjoyed swimming. Not whatever she swam away from or swam toward, but the sensation of the moments in between. She spent so much time in the water, but did she connect to the water?

Jodie Foster was good as per usual. Taking the supporting role gave us countless scenes of two determined older women who had each other’s backs. That’s not your typical film fodder. And we need more movies telling the stories of women’s accomplishments.

The movie had no political context, no consideration of the meaning of this journey for Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and notably not the many people who lost their lives trying to use that route to escape. Cuba doesn’t just exist as a plot point.

I still don’t get it. Why brutalize your body to set a record when you could do something that actually matters? I don’t think these sorts of things do matter. I’m not inspired she spent hundreds of thousands to set a questionable record. It feels meaningless, dabbling with the water hoi polloi. Being doubted and denied because of her age, gender, and sexual orientation. Being violated by her coach because of her vulnerability. These are real things to process.

Imagine if she set up a swimming school that was predator free? Or sponsored swimming clubs for Cuban-American kids? Or anything that showed her passion for swimming beyond setting dubious record achievements.

In case you are wondering, yes, I do dissect movies like this while watching and during the car ride home or the walk upstairs.

Check out Nyad. Leet me know what you think.


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