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The married documentarians, who earned an Academy Award for their jaw-dropping 2018 film “Free Solo,” have always been drawn to extremes, to the limits of the human body’s physical and mental capabilities. Nyad, the legendary long-distance swimmer and former ABC “Wide World of Sports” correspondent, fits firmly within that category. And “Nyad,” Chin and Vasarhelyi’s first narrative feature, tells the tale of her quest at age 64 to swim from Cuba to Florida, a brutal stretch of 110 miles.
It's a pretty standard story of sports uplift, a familiar tale of triumph over adversity. When Nyad finally crossed successfully, with the help of a crew of coaches, kayakers, and a medic, it was her fifth attempt. We witness all the setbacks, all the ways in which the journey went frustratingly wrong before it went right. An unexpected encounter with a swarm of box jellyfish provides a harrowing scene of nighttime horror, for example.
What elevates “Nyad” above the expected terrain are the performances from Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, both individually and with each other. Bening brings swagger and a steely-eyed ferocity as Diana, reveling in the swimmer’s self-aggrandizement and narcissistic knack for ignoring social cues. Nyad thinks a lot of herself, and you need that kind of ironclad sense of your abilities if you’re going to succeed at this elite level of athletics. But as an actress, Bening appears to have zero vanity: makeup-free, with wet, messy hair, and often wearing a swimsuit or faded T-shirt, this is far from a glamorous depiction.
Despite that larger-than-life portrayal, Foster pretty much steals the movie out from under her as Nyad’s longtime friend and coach and onetime partner, Bonnie Stoll. The two veteran actresses have a natural, crackling chemistry with each other, and they truly make you feel the depth and complexity of their decades-long bond. But Foster also provides a clear-eyed perspective and a warmth that counterbalances Bening’s intensity. Her on-screen spark is so authentic and compelling; it’s like she’s not even acting, and it’s a joy to watch Foster dig into this kind of amusing and meaty role once more. Bonnie is the one person who will call Diana out on her obnoxious behavior—at least until Rhys Ifans arrives later as the no-nonsense captain of the boat that cruises alongside Diana during troubled try after try. Ifans is also very good here in his wry world-weariness.
This brings us to the one element of the film that’s conspicuously missing: an honest portrayal of Nyad’s reportedly notorious dishonesty. Several recent investigative pieces have found that the swimmer hasn’t always been truthful about her storied career, fabricating accomplishments that are easy to disprove. “Nyad” makes a glancing reference to this tendency when Bonnie affectionately teases Diana about inflating the details of an oft-repeated anecdote, but that’s it. There’s a thornier, messier, much more provocative story to be told here, so it’s frustrating the filmmakers opt for easy inspiration instead. Perhaps the fact that Diana Nyad is still alive and high-profile at age 74 makes it difficult to create a completely warts-and-all portrait of her. Photographs during the closing credits of the real-life figures alongside the women who play them indicate that she’s given her approval. We might have gotten a more interesting film if she hadn’t.
Still, “Nyad” offers a great deal of striking scenery and legitimately stressful moments, even though we know that Diana ultimately prevailed. And the logistics of the slight tweaks she makes each time along the road to success are fascinating. But the needle drops are painfully on the nose, from Simon and Garfunkel to Neil Young; Diana explains that she has a running playlist in her head to provide a rhythm to her strokes, so these may be the actual songs that kept her going. Still, in this cinematic context, they seem a little obvious.
The ocean is relentless, but so is Diana as she utters platitudes like: “I don’t want an asterisk next to my life’s greatest achievement.” “Nyad” might not be the greatest film about that achievement, but it’s sufficiently entertaining.
In select theaters today. On Netflix November 3rd.
Annette Bening as Diana Nyad
Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll
Rhys Ifans as John Bartlett
Luke Cosgrove as Luke Tipple
Karly Rothenberg as Dee
Jeena Yi as Angel Yanigahara
Anna Harriette Pittman as Teenage Diana
Eric T. Miller as Coach Jack Nelson
Garland Scott as Jon Rose
Johnny Solo as Aris Nyad