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Netflix’s The Swimmers takes a ripped-from-the-headlines true story and turns it into narrative cinema. You can almost hear Bob Costas narrating an Olympic clip package when you know the logline of Yusra Mardini’s journey. A swimmer at the 2016 Rio games escapes from Syria – through water, no less – and manages to make the cut to compete after training as a refugee in Berlin.
The Gist: In 2015, sisters Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) Mardini are competitive swimmers in Syria as the country collapses into civil war. They see the writing on the wall and start looking for a simple, safe way to evacuate their family. One option they begin hearing through a whisper network of friends is to get to Berlin and then request family reunification from safety there. Their headstrong father resists the plan, however, and even cites Yusra’s swimming career as justification to stay put.
But with their wacky cousin Nizar in tow, the Mardini sisters begin the arduous trek across land as well as the Aegean Sea – where their nautical skills will prove necessary for survival. Once they arrive and claim refugee status, Yusra resumes putting her eyes on the prize of competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics. It takes tenacious training and the help of German coach Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), but inspirational sports dramas don’t get rousing responses because it’s easy for a protagonist to achieve their goals, now do they?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Any Disney sports movie that involves overcoming hardship and adversity to achieve greatness comes to mind, ranging from Miracle to Glory Road to the underrated Queen of Katwe. Although none of those films quite get into capturing the horrors of what their champions overcome in quite this detail, those films are very much the blueprint for what The Swimmers does.
Performance Worth Watching: Both actresses playing the swimming Mardini sisters are great, but it’s Nathalie Issa as Yusra who’s the real standout of the duo. She’s the one whose ambitions and fears the film cares to go the deepest into because, well, Yusra is the one who makes it to swim in the Olympics.
Memorable Dialogue: Moreso than any line uttered by a character, a message scrawled in graffiti on a Damascus wall cuts through the noise. “Your planes can’t bomb our dreams,” the message says, and it leaves a mark on the sisters as they evacuate a bus following gunfire.
Sex and Skin: Nothing of the sort, though there are plenty of skintight racing suits in the swimming competitions.
Our Take: There are a number of different movies within The Swimmers competing to take the medal stand. Taking gold is the film’s gritty journey out of Syria, capped off by a boat sequence so grippingly cinematic it’s a shame most people will watch it at home. Taking silver is the family drama, which has heartwarming moments but struggles with an undercooked rivalry dynamic between the sisters. Taking bronze, if it even medals at all, is the clichéd inspirational sports drama that might as well be directed on autopilot by Sally El Hosaini. The second Yusra and Sara get their physical needs addressed, the film relegates the refugee experience as something off in the background, like nice knowledge for an ESPN clip package. The film slowly goes from being something quite special to something quite ordinary.
Our Call: SKIP IT. If you’re fine with a film that’s so on-the-nose that it will quite literally time bombs falling on Damascus in the distance while its lead characters dance to the line “I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose / fire away, fire away” in David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium,” then this might be for you. All others are advised to save the over two hours it would take to watch all of The Swimmers and simply do a YouTube search for the subject Yusra Mardini.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.
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