Husband and wife documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo, The Rescue, Return to Space) bring their same frustrating directorial aesthetics to their first narrative outing. Fortunately, they've got two outstanding performances to keep us fully engaged. The story aligns with the type of subject these filmmakers are drawn to for their docs, a highly motivated extreme personality pushing themselves to the limit of their abilities to pursue an unprecedented goal. In this case, the character at the center is Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer who set multiple swimming records in her youth and retired from the sport after failing to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys when she was twenty-eight. The movie centers on the five attempts at this seemingly impossible crossing that Nyad made between 2011 and 2013 when she was in her early sixties.
Annette Bening fully commits to embodying Diana Nyad in all her stubborn, self-aggrandizing glory. She might be the most narcissistic character in any of Chin and Vasarhelyi's films, and they've made movies about Alex Honnold and Elon Musk! But part of what makes Bening such a great star is her ability to play dislikable or eccentric characters and make them compelling as hell. It helps that she's paired here with Jodie Foster, as Nyad's best friend and coach, Bonnie Stoll. Both actors look remarkably like the people they're playing, and they capture the distinctive connection between these two women.
There's no way around this story's docudrama/biopic trappings, but the way the filmmakers attempt to navigate those generic waters is not very successful. The long scenes of Benning's Nyad swimming are intercut with footage of the real Diana Nyad during her swims, as well as hallucinogenic visions and flashbacks to her youth. We get pulled out of the story every time one of these cuts occurs, even when the flashbacks impart backstory. Just like Free Solo's maddening cuts away from Alex Honnold's historic climb to the camera operators filming him unnecessarily expressing their anxiety about what they're witnessing, whenever the filmmakers leave Nyad while she's still in the water is a missed opportunity to explore what's going on in the moment. After all, this is a movie about a long, slow, arduous task that I'm sure was as boring as it was intense. Little details like how she makes a mental playlist of songs that she sings in her head to keep time with her strikes are all the film needs to keep us in sync with its protagonist.
More time spent on the boat with the team helping her attempt these crossings would have been a far more effective way than the flashbacks to convey what makes Nyad tick while also giving us a richer understanding of each person's role and motivation for being there. But for all its many faults, I still recommend Nyad for its lead performances. This is especially true of Forster, who gives one of her most relaxed and endearing turns in a long time. Of all the characters she's played since becoming an adult, Bonnie is the most like what I would have imagined any of the spunky, wiseacre Disney kids Forster played in her youth would have grown up to be like.
The first narrative feature by the documentarians behind Free Solo and The Rescue is too standard a docudrama/biopic, sports drama to be worthy of its one-of-a-kind subject, but the two central performances make the film compelling.