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The Unlikely Oscar Contender: The Story Behind ‘NYAD’

The Oscar, known as the most prestigious and long-standing award in the film industry, has been a focal point of interest every year except for one or two exceptional years, attracting the attention of almost all cinephiles around the world, not just for Hollywood.

I had penned the curious history of this interesting award in the article here.

I must state beforehand that I am not someone who can make accurate Oscar predictions. It seems that the Oscar juries and my artistic codes have never aligned in the cinema field, which I have been writing about for about 30 years. And it seems a bit difficult at this age.

However, these thirty years have taught me something.

Every year, before these awards are given, I have learned to develop two different predictions.

The first is my own predictions: I think this film should win the Oscar this year.

The second is predicting by empathizing with the jury: This year, this film will win the award!

Throughout my professional life, very few films have been the common answer to these two options at the same time, like Braveheart, for example.

It seems we have come across such a year this time too, but in a slightly reverse situation. This time, I will tell you which film won’t win.

Especially during and after the pandemic, while traditional cinema operations were severely affected, digital platforms gained considerable popularity. Netflix and similar platforms are now working like very important production companies. Therefore, every year, at least a few films from these companies embrace Oscar awards in some way.

An extraordinary true story!

First, I want to talk about a real character: Diana Nyad!

The story of Diana Nyad is an adventure that pushes the limits of human endurance and will. Born in New York City on August 22, 1949, Nyad showed extraordinary talents in swimming from a young age. She started her career as a swimmer and quickly achieved success in national competitions. However, her true passion was in open-water marathon swimming.

Nyad’s biggest dream was to swim through the dangerous waters between Cuba and Florida, under the threat of sharks and poisonous jellyfish, without a protective cage. She attempted this dangerous crossing four times, each time facing various challenges. However, Nyad never gave up in the face of failure. In 2013, at the age of 64, Nyad completed this extraordinary journey on her fifth attempt. This 53-hour swimming marathon made her one of the greatest open-water swimmers in history.


Nyad’s success was not only a testament to her physical strength and endurance; it was also a symbol of pursuing dreams and never giving up. Her story is an inspiring example that age is just a number and what one can achieve by pushing their own limits.

After her swimming career, Nyad also became known as an author, journalist, and motivational speaker. She continues to inspire people to reach their goals by sharing her experiences. Diana Nyad has left an unforgettable mark not only in sports history but also in the triumph of willpower and the human spirit.

96th Oscar Awards

The Oscar Awards, given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929 and selecting the best in the film world, have announced their nominees. The 96th Oscar Awards ceremony will be hosted by the famous American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. The awards will find their owners on March 10, 2024.

Some years may have been rather barren in terms of film production, but not this year. There are very solid films like Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.”

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” film tops the list with 13 nominations, while the “Barbie” film received 8 nominations. Both films were nominated in the Best Film category. For the first time in Oscar history, two films released in the same weekend have been nominated for Best Film. The “Poor Things” film, which has attracted attention with Emma Stone’s performance, follows “Oppenheimer” with 11 nominations.

I can say that I have watched all the nominated films. Until the last film I watched, I had more or less an opinion about the awards. I could have written that the Oscar jury, as always, would evaluate according to American traditions and their own cultural codes, productions like “Barbie” would be one step ahead, Scorsese would be given something akin to a retirement award, Nolan would be encouraged, and so on, before watching the last nominated film.

When we look at cinema-related authorities, especially websites specialized in Oscars, it is quite natural not to give much chance to the film I will mention shortly.

The most important reason for this, I suppose, is the film’s release date.

The film I will talk about is “NYAD.” Unfortunately, since the film was released last October/November, it entered the radar of both the pre-jury and the audience much later than other films.

The film has several handicaps. Some handicaps, however, are actually its strong points.

For example, the film was not directed by a classic drama director. The husband-and-wife documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have directed a cinema and such a sports drama for the first time. The couple has previously successful documentaries like “Free Solo,” but as known, directing drama is nothing like documentary, especially if you are directing two great master actresses.

What does NYAD tell?

We looked at Diana Nyad’s life story. So, which parts or how much of this story is in the NYAD film? Let’s first take a general look at the film.

As we said, the NYAD film is a 2023 biographical sports drama that tells the story of Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) at 60 years old, realizing her dream of swimming 180 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. The film focuses on her multiple attempts in the early 2010s, highlighting her perseverance and determination against this challenging endeavor. Jodie Foster, as Nyad’s close friend, former partner, and dedicated coach Bonnie Stoll, adds depth to the story with her performance, while the husband-and-wife duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin sit in the director’s chairs.

The film premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival on September 1, 2023, and was released in theaters on October 20, 2023, followed by a Netflix release on November 3, 2023. Critics praised the film, particularly highlighting the impressive performances of Bening and Foster, which earned them widespread acclaim and nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, respectively. The film received positive reviews for its uplifting narrative and the chemistry between Bening and Foster; it was noted that the duo transcended cliches with their emotional moments in the film. However, some critics pointed out that the film missed the opportunity to explore more complex themes, noting that a deeper character analysis could have provided a more thorough exploration beyond the surface-level portrayal of Nyad’s extraordinary athletic achievement.

Husband-and-wife documentary directors with master actors… The film shows Nyad’s journey as both a physical and emotional marathon, capturing the essence of human endurance, friendship, and the triumph of spirit against challenges. Despite some criticisms regarding Nyad’s past and music choices, “NYAD” stands out with its exciting portrayal of an extraordinary achievement, breathtaking views of the open ocean, and nuanced performances by the lead actors. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the film.

The stubborn and talkative athlete’s story of perseverance!

Let me briefly introduce a concept first.

Cynicism is a way of thinking typically associated with the belief that people’s motivations are fundamentally selfish and self-serving. This perspective assumes that individuals prioritize their own interests over moral values or societal norms. Cynicism also reflects a skeptical and critical attitude towards institutions, traditions, and ideals. Cynical individuals often display a distrustful and mocking approach to society’s well-intentioned actions or ideals. This way of thinking finds its roots in Ancient Greek, particularly with philosophers like Diogenes associated with Cynic Philosophy, but is used in a broader and often more negative sense today.

In an era where most films are imbued with cynicism, NYAD has a strangely refreshing aspect. Yes, some parts may be rough, it may take a while to get going, and it might not reinvent the biographical film formula, but it still ultimately provides successful crowd satisfaction.

Real heroes and the film crew… In terms of its inspiring story, NYAD follows the relatively simple story of the protagonist’s attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. This underdog/human spirit victory story is not new, but here it is handled with honesty and care. The film’s early moments with Bening, as Nyad, are almost unintentionally funny, and it’s quite clear that the actors are not completely comfortable with their characters at the start. However, like Nyad herself, the film improves over time with increased technical quality and the actors’ ability to showcase their talents, making you feel like you’re cheering for her success with the crowds by the end.

Diana Nyad is a complex figure, undoubtedly with incredible achievements, but also known to be egotistical, dishonest, and generally quite controversial. The film glosses over child abuse, rape, and hints at homosexuality but as one dialogue says, “Your father was a real piece of work,” which is quite controversial, actually!

When I started watching the Nyad film, I was afraid that the filmmakers would opt to completely ignore this and make it simpler (and more appealing for Oscar votes) but thankfully, that was not the case. While the film progresses with a traditional empowerment story, there’s a tension between Nyad and her friends when her arrogance threatens to derail the swimming event. The “power of teamwork” lesson may seem cliché, and to some extent, it is! However, the film’s examination of how perceptions can change depending on your humility adds a texture that all filmmakers would desire to include.

One of the most talked-about aspects of this film is the acting, and almost everyone seems to appreciate the tremendous acting power of the two women. Annette Bening does a very good job of marketing this idealistic yet egocentric woman without making her completely unlikable, and the physical strength required for her swimming performance is impressive. It might take her a bit to fully warm up to her role, but once she does, she makes a powerful turnaround.

However, the real star of the film (and who, in my opinion, fully deserves the Best Supporting Actress award) is Jodie Foster. Her somewhat aged appearance might leave a bit of a bittersweet taste for those of us who have followed her since childhood, but she adds so much personality and vitality to her character that she completely disappears into the role and becomes the best part of the film. Even without great dialogues given to Foster, her sheer talent brings the film together, constructing a complex portrait of a woman torn between loyalty to her friend and self-fulfillment. If for nothing else, you should watch this film for her performance.

To wrap things up, I want to say: NYAD is exactly the kind of thing that would fly under the radar if not for the award season, but it has more sensitivity than most films you’ll find on Netflix. Sure, it’s not incredibly well-made, but it doesn’t have to be. The fundamental thing that makes a story work this way is emotional impact, and it delivers that. In closing, NYAD is a flawed but satisfying film, uplifting and worth watching for its excellent acting.

Now, why the film won’t win an Oscar.

It won’t win because it’s only nominated in two categories, best and supporting actress. Actually, aside from the real story of NYAD, this is its strongest aspect. Otherwise, neither its directors are considered classic directors nor do they seem to have a particular film language.

Despite everything, I recommend watching this impressive film…

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