The loftier and more dangerous the goal, the finer the line that separates the Guinness Book of World Records from the Darwin Awards. At a certain point, surviving is the only real difference. Do-or-die marathon swimmer Diana Nyad dreamed of swimming from Cuba to Florida. That’s 110 miles of unpredictable open ocean. Prior to her, the only ones to have done it used a shark cage to shield them from life-threatening aquatic predators. Diana first tried and failed when she was 28. Decades later, she decided to go again, failing three more times.
If Diana Nyad sounds stubborn, you have no idea. Directed by “Free Solo” helmers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, making the leap from documentaries to fiction with a fact-based narrative that feels perfectly suited to their skill set, the Netflix movie “Nyad” is a portrait of obsession. It’s an almost single-minded account of Diana’s multiple attempts to swim that stretch.
In a performance that feels every bit as committed as the athlete she’s depicting, Annette Bening plays a woman who braved storms, being stung by box jellyfish and even a shark attack to reach her goal. Those factors represent the obstacles in her path, but the movie hardly has room for subplots. “Nyad” has a one-track mind, and while the experience is long and repetitive enough that you’ll probably emerge with the mental equivalent of prune fingers, feeling as if you made that 53-hour swim yourself, the takeaway is obvious: Never give up.
Unlike other sports movies, “Nyad” focuses on a fighter whose adversary in achieving her goal was herself. For a few minutes, a younger swimmer comes along to give it a shot, but this is essentially a solo endeavor — albeit one that wouldn’t have been possible without a dedicated team that included coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), all-but-mute captain Dee Brady (Karly Rothenberg), self-sacrificing navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) and marine expert Angel Yanagihara (Jeena Yi), who suggested the suit that prevented Diana from being stung to death by box jellyfish.
“Nyad” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, where plenty of audiences found it inspiring, and yet, the thing on practically everyone’s lips was how unlikable they found Bening’s character. The strange thing about that charge is how her take on Diana Nyad seems no different from a hundred male heroes that audiences have adored over the years. If anything, that’s what we expect from Jack Bauer or James Bond: for them to become human locomotives, charging toward whatever goal at the expense of civility, rules and personal relationships. But show an equivalently driven female protagonist, and it upsets people.
Vasarhelyi and Chin have dealt with such characters in their docs, and they resist toning down Diana’s determination here. It’s her defining characteristic, after all, complemented by a handful of more endearing habits, like her tendency to fall back on the same stories, inflating the details with each retelling. (Julia Cox’s script is constantly having to find creative ways to deliver exposition, so Diana’s self-mythologizing comes in handy, while also saying a lot about her character.)
Where Diana’s arrogance can be a lot to take at times, as her best friend Bonnie, Foster proves a buoyant presence — like the human equivalent of those adorable pink floaties kids wear in the pool. The movie would sink without her. And so would Diana Nyad. She wouldn’t dream of doing the Cuba-to-Florida swim without Bonnie, and so, she uses her sneaky psychology to talk her pal into serving as coach.
Diana’s supposed to be the one training for a marathon, but Bonnie’s the real iron woman here, with titanium guns and zero percent body fat. At one point, she tells Diana, “I bumped into you in the kitchen. It was like running into a brick wall.” Diana might just as easily have replied, “Look who’s talking!” Both actors are in formidable shape, but Foster’s radiant smile leaves the biggest impression. There’s a scene where she sits and encourages Diana, reciting some pep talk about their dreams, and all you can think is what a megawatt presence Foster is on screen, and how she really ought to make more movies than she does.
This matters because Bening spends much of her time in the water, wearing a special mask to deflect jellyfish. After tens of hours in the ocean, her face swells up to monstrous proportions (the makeup on this movie is some kind of feat unto itself). Better to focus on what’s going on aboard the boat that trails her, which puts the weight on Foster and Ifans (who’s also quite good, balancing John’s belief in Diana with the frustration he feels at her abrasive personality). When a shark attacks, it’s the crew who sees it coming and must jump in to protect her.
What does Diana think about while swimming for two days straight? Frankly, it’s not that interesting, and the CG-enhanced sequence in which she hallucinates a visit to the Taj Mahal was a mistake. Clunkier still are flashbacks to her childhood, when the young Diana was abused by her coach. That’s a defining aspect of her identity, and yet, these vignettes are clumsily staged and unconvincingly acted. (It’s the only sex in a movie that otherwise breaks boundaries for queer representation. Diana and Bonnie will go down as two of the coolest lesbians in screen history.)
Considering Vasarhelyi and Chin’s documentary background, it’s perhaps not surprising that the duo intercuts a hefty amount of archival footage with the action, including TV appearances in which we see how well Bening channels the real Diana’s unflappable confidence. Why not simply tell this story as a doc? It’s the vulnerable moments that make “Nyad” so effective, along with the personal scenes between Diana and Bonnie where no cameras were present. Audiences want to see Diana Nyad succeed, but the pleasure of the experience comes from watching actors become these characters. No matter how tricky such feats must have been to re-create, you get the impression that everyone involved was having a blast.