Diana Nyad is an exceptional athlete and an all-around fascinating individual. This comes across in her biopic, even if the film isn’t as extraordinary as the woman at the core. Nyad hits all of the notes that it needs to, but it rarely catches us off guard. It’s getting harder and harder for biopics to deliver more than what the audience expects beyond a subject’s Wikipedia page. There is one element that helps to distinguish Nyad, however: its central friendship. Diana Nyad’s superhuman feats might be the hook, although it’s her rapport with Bonnie Stoll that keeps the film afloat.
Annette Bening stars as Nyad, who never achieved Olympic gold, but became one of the most dedicated and ambitious long-distance swimmers who ever lived. In 1978, she set her sights on swimming from Cuba to Florida. While Nyad would set a record swimming from the Bahamas to Florida, the Cuba swim seemed beyond even her capability. Nyad is compelled to revisit the swim in 2011, despite now being in her 60s. Everyone tells her that such an endeavor is crazy, including her bestie Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). Nyad is nonetheless determined to cross the swim off her bucket list even if it kills her, which it very well could. The swim is one thing. The sharks and jellyfish along the way are another.
Despite her apprehension, Stoll agrees to be her coach. Although it’s acknowledged that Nyad and Stoll briefly dated eons ago, their relationship is purely platonic. Yet, the two talk so openly that you’d swear they were a married couple. Even if there’s no sexual tension, they know each other inside and out, never hesitating to say exactly what’s on their minds. Nyad thus presents a side of friendship rarely seen in film, especially ones about LGBTQ+ figures. The conversations between Nyad and Stoll play out like a racquetball match, which is sometimes friendly and other times competitive. This is where the film shines, although the scenes at sea are impressively executed as well.
Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin go from the heights of Free Solo to the crushing currents that Nyad fought against. While this feat belongs to Nyad, nobody can swim this distance without support. Sailing alongside Nyad is a team of medical and ocean experts, including a navigator played by Rhys Ifans. As confident as Nyad is, her second attempt isn’t much more successful than her first. Nyad keeps getting back into the water, however. With every failed attempt, Nyad only becomes more resolute. The swimming sequences are effectively interspersed with flashbacks to Nyad’s abusive childhood, diving into her physical and mental anguish.
There have been whispers of Nyad bringing Bening an overdue Oscar. While Bening delivers a transformative turn, I’d be lying if I said that this is her best performance. American Beauty it isn’t, but Nyad is considerably more deserving of awards attention than Running with Scissors. If Bening finally wins the Oscar, she owes at least half of it to Foster. Had this just been Diana Nyad’s story, the film would’ve been serviceable. As a story about Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll, this is a powerful exploration of friendship. Nyad might’ve been a great biopic had it delved even deeper into this friendship, putting less emphasis on the swim. Whenever Bening and Foster are on screen together, though, we’re engaged with every stroke.