Documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi proved themselves adept at depicting incredible feats with their captivating (and sometimes terrifying) film Free Solo, which took home the 2019 Oscar for Best Documentary. Making the jump to narrative feature for the first time, the duo might seem like a perfect match for the story of Diana Nyad, a former world class swimmer who sets out to achieve her lifelong goal of swimming unassisted from Cuba to Florida, despite being in her sixties. But Chin and Vasarhelyi’s documentarian sensibilities are frequently at odds with this by-the-numbers inspirational sports drama, whose subject is so wholly unlikable that you might just find yourself rooting for her failure.
Annette Bening portrays Diana (who insists on being addressed only be her last name) as self-centered and abrasive, consumed by her desire to accomplish a feat that nearly everyone around her deems foolhardy, from the cantankerous navigator (Rhys Ifans) who will chart her course through the treacherous currents of the Florida Strait, to longtime pal Bonnie (Jodie Foster), who serves as Diana’s coach as she trains for the event. “Coach” is something of a misnomer here, as Bonnie’s most important role is keeping the rest of the support team from jumping ship as Diana insults, demeans and berates them while snarling about her destiny. With the right tone and structure, Nyad could’ve been a fascinating study of a narcissist; that certainly would’ve been a much more interesting approach than the finished product.
Instead, the film plods along through familiar biopic beats, frequently intercut with archival footage and audio snippets of the real Diana Nyad, begging the question why Chin and Vasarhelyi didn’t just make a documentary in the first place. Perhaps that would’ve also afforded them opportunity to address some of the more controversial aspects of Nyad’s career, including longstanding accusation that she has exaggerated — or outright lied — about many of her accolades and accomplishments over the years, a topic which could’ve helped breathe a bit more life into the proceedings. But the disappointingly shallow screenplay from Julia Cox rarely ventures below the surface, even as our protagonist propels herself through open waters of unfathomable depths, and we’re left pondering why we should care about this caustic egomaniac’s personal Moby Dick story.