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A Biopic That Should’ve Been a Documentary

Annette Bening’s portrayal of a legendary swimmer in Nyad ultimately succumbs to narrative cliché.

Liz Parkinson / Netflix

For years, the filmmaking team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi has specialized in making documentaries about athletes and adventurers who push the very limits of human survival. The directors’ critical peak came with the 2018 documentary Free Solo, but in works such as Meru and The Rescue they painted portraits of mountaineers and cave divers who exist to perform nigh-impossible feats of endurance. So it’s no surprise that their first foray into making a narrative feature closely resembles that kind of documentary: Nyad, a biopic about the distance swimmer Diana Nyad, whose athletic goals were challenging to the point of being absurd.

Nyad (played by Annette Bening) is an open-ocean swimmer who set various records in her 20s, including swimming from the Bahamas to Florida in record time back in 1979. But she never completed a more ambitious, more dangerous trip from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, some 110 miles long, thwarted by strong winds in her initial attempts. Chin and Vasarhelyi’s film, which adapts Nyad’s own autobiography, finds the athlete coming out of retirement in her 60s to attempt the Cuba-to-Florida journey again, supported by her best pal and coach, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster).

The idea of anyone swimming that distance in the open ocean is tough to consider, but for a 60-something woman whose last serious athletic efforts came during the Carter administration, it feels particularly incredible. Bening’s performance is thus centered on capturing Nyad’s overwhelming, bullheaded stubbornness, her most crucial asset as she barrels toward a seemingly insurmountable goal. And Bening is up to the task—she’s always had unique fearlessness in letting her characters’ flaws speak for themselves, winning audiences over with sheer force instead of breezy charm. Foster is the perfect balance alongside her, depicting Bonnie as easygoing to the extreme, a one-woman support system who helps Nyad navigate the complex business of assembling a team to tackle the Caribbean Sea.

But for almost the entirety of Nyad’s running time, I couldn’t help but think how much better the film would have functioned as a pure documentary. The real Diana Nyad is a prickly and controversial figure in her world, possessing the kind of intense persona that Bening can do only so much to imitate. She also has exactly the kind of singularly driven mind that Chin and Vasarhelyi are good at probing—their portrait of the rock climber Alex Honnold in Free Solo was as focused on the stilted aspects of his social life as it was on the technical details of summiting El Capitan. But by making Nyad a narrative film, the movie succumbs to a lot of boring biopic-storytelling shorthand; Nyad sometimes states her goals and fears aloud in the middle of conversation. Much of the thuddingly expositional dialogue cannot escape the sense that it sprouted from an expanded Wikipedia page.

Perhaps Nyad’s big swims, which happened in the early 2010s, never produced the quantity of compelling, high-quality footage that Chin and Vasarhelyi use for their documentaries, necessitating the biopic approach. The best part of the movie is thus the filmmakers’ careful re-creation of the circumstances of Nyad’s swims—monotonous crawls through choppy currents that took dozens of hours and required her to locate a meditative state in order to avoid submitting to pure ennui. The always-reliable Rhys Ifans does interesting work as John Bartlett, the grizzled navigator who drives a boat alongside Nyad and helps her chart a course. Some of the details of Nyad’s process are wonderfully strange, such as the full-body rubber suit she dons to avoid deadly jellyfish stings.

Again, though, all of this would probably be better represented in a pure documentary, which could stack up these strange facts and dig a little deeper into just how polarizing a person Nyad is in the insular world of distance swimming. Instead, Chin and Vasarhelyi go no further than acknowledging her as a strong personality; by the end, the film leans into platitudes about never giving up and following your dreams that are better suited to motivational posters than to dramatic works of art. Nyad’s compulsion is so unusual, and her methods of achieving her swim dreams were so elaborate, that I was never completely bored by Nyad. But, if you’ll pardon the pun, I was left wondering about the protagonist’s inner depths.

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