One of the great joys of the documentary form is the unpredictability of the narrative. Fictional narratives can indulge us, but a documentary must be rooted in some perception of a hard fact. It’s up to the documentary filmmaker to craft that perception, and more importantly, adjust his or her perception when the facts no longer fit pre-conceived notions. Director Timothy Wheeler sets out to create an inspirational tale of success with his film The Other Shore, but reality didn’t go the way he or his subject, marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, expected. Rather than find a new theme for his movie, Wheeler remains committed to an approach that no longer works and the result is a vapid, unfulfilling ending to his picture. [Warning: Spoilers follow after the jump.]
In order to explain why The Other Shore doesn’t work, I have to talk about the ending. If I dance around the details, then I can’t adequately make my point about why I found the movie deeply flawed.
The film begins with Nyad, arguably the best marathon swimmer of all-time, trying to take another shot at her lifelong goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida. Nyad failed at her attempt back in 1978, and she decided to retire at age 30 to become a sportscaster, author, commentator, and a variety of other professions that made use of her intelligence and work-ethic. At age 60, Nyad decides to take another shot at the Cuba to Florida swim, an extremely dangerous prospect considering not only her age, but the shark-infested waters, poisonous jellyfish, and strong currents, not to mention the requirement that she can’t use a floatation device or fall asleep over the course of the 103-mile journey. In 2011, her first attempt failed because she was hit was an asthma attack and her muscles gave out. The second attempt failed because she was attacked by jellyfish. Her third attempt, which bookends the picture, failed due to a tropical storm.
The problem isn’t that she failed. Failure can be good and healthy. We can learn from our mistakes, and we’re better for the experience. However, in the case of The Other Shore, failure is an obstacle for the pre-conceived narrative Wheeler and Nyad have already constructed. It’s designed as a comeback story about an old champion who beats the odds and accomplishes her lifelong dream. That’s inspirational and uplifting, but the fact is that the attempts failed. Like his subject, Wheeler refuses to accept this failure, but this doesn’t bring us closer to her mental state.
The documentary plays as if she could succeed, which makes the film inherently anti-climactic. There’s rarely any dwelling on the failure and no larger insight on how these failures impact Nyad beyond the deep concern she causes her friend and trainer. Instead, Wheeler chooses to play the events chronologically so that we keep hoping the latest attempt will bring her to the other shore. But since that never happens, we’re left focusing on failed missions rather than getting a better understanding of Nyad.
When Wheeler does turn his camera on Nyad, there’s surprisingly little connection with his star. For a woman that has had the charisma to work in broadcasting for decades, her comments on her massive undertaking come off as disarmingly business-like. There’s almost no passion whatsoever to her training. More off-putting is the way she addresses the horrific sexual abuse she suffered as a child and a teenager. Her tone is very matter-of-fact, and while I respect the maturity with which she acknowledges her past, and I wouldn’t want her to break down in tears in order to land a dramatic punch, I’m shocked at how coldly Wheeler handles this part of her biography. It’s simply a segment that is rarely addressed again later on, so we’re left wondering why we never get to know more about Nyad’s life beyond her successful swimming career and her sexual abuse.
The only time it feels like we’re seeing Nyad outside of the film’s rigid structure is when she’s failing at her attempts. These are the moments Wheeler can’t get around, and these failures show Nyad at her most human and relatable. We already know she’s an astounding person, but we would know that from looking at a list of her achievements. Wheeler deserves credit for his willingness to show us the unglamorous side of her training, but The Other Side is at its best when we see the enormous physical pressures put upon Nyad. Even though we know Nyad will survive her jellyfish attack, it’s nerve-wracking to see her try and survive the effects of the poison.
In these scenes, Nyad is more than a sport and a trauma. She’s a real person who feels fear and vulnerability in the face of what might be an impossible dream. We recognize the frailty of the human body and the conflict it creates with the human spirit. But by the end of the film, we still don’t have a better understanding of Nyad. Early in the picture, she offhandedly remarks that she’s been single for the last twenty years, and that’s surprising considering the strength of her character and personality (one that’s not captured here, but seen in other interviews). The film constantly glosses over these moments so that it can hype us up for Nyad’s potential victory. Rather than go deeper to explore Nyad’s failure to achieve her goal, The Other Shore can only share her disappointment.
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