Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Written by Julia Cox
Starring Annette Bening, Jodie Foster and Rhys Ifans
Classification PG; 121 minutes
Opens in select theatres Oct. 20; streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 3
Over the course of their acclaimed careers, husband-and-wife documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have helped audiences scale mountaintops with extreme rock-climbers (Free Solo), dive into the depths of Thailand’s treacherous caves (The Rescue), and shoot into the stratosphere (Return to Space). Now, the pair are plunging us into the choppy waves of open-water marathon swimming as they follow Diana Nyad as she attempts to cross the sea from Cuba to Florida. At the age of 60.
But instead of utilizing their well-honed non-fiction skills to make another doc, Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin swerve into narrative-biopic territory, casting Annette Bening as the title hero and Jodie Foster as her best friend/amateur coach Bonnie Stoll. The detour seems, on paper, like a natural stretch of ambitions for the couple, given how their docs are already structured with an impressive but decidedly Hollywood kind of slickness, tension and momentum. But it quickly becomes clear that while Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin have brought along decent doc habits (such as amplifying Diana’s drama with archival news clips) they’ve also picked up the most vexing habits of that hoariest of fictional genres: the underdog sports biopic.
There are inspirational training montages, twinkly-music moments of defeat, and enough “You can do it!” speeches to make Rob Schneider’s character from The Waterboy throw his hands up in exhaustion. And if you think that comparing this ostensibly prestige drama to an Adam Sandler flick from the 1990s is unfair or crass, then you have yet to see the supremely clumsy way that Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin handle their scenes flashbacking to Diana’s childhood. Or how they drain such colourful locales as St. Maarten and Havana of anything resembling life. Or, well, it’s a long and waterlogged list of narrative and stylistic missteps, perhaps capped by how this Nyad is about the closest thing you can get to an “authorized” biopic.
Between the real Diana’s many appearances during the film’s end credits – there she is talking with Oprah, Ellen, anyone – and the fact that her character is written here as an inch shy of impeachable, Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin seem content to have left the world of documentary for puff-piece-ery.
Perhaps fittingly, the directors’ big foray into Hollywood is saved by the star power of the two industry legends headlining the film. Bening and Foster are absolute delights from beginning to end, giving Diana and Bonnie’s friendship – sometimes combative, sometimes supportive, always unbreakable – real emotional weight that the film’s script or direction simply do not otherwise provide.
As written, Diana is a sometimes cocky but mostly indomitable woman of supreme courage and tenacity – a character rather hard to inflict nuanced layers upon. Yet Bening responds to the challenge with her own kind of grit, determined to peel away the armour of an ironman-level athlete. (The actress also spends about 75 per cent of the film in the water, likely freezing her butt off.)
While Foster might have an easier go of things given that her character is kept mostly dry, the actress unlocks something special by playing Bonnie as someone wrestling with the limits of encouragement. How far can you support your best friend, if that best friend is almost pathologically determined to kill herself to prove that age isn’t just a number?
As soon the film hit the fall festival circuit, articles began popping up alleging that Diana’s achievement was not exactly the record-breaker that she claimed it to be. Those accusations are brushed away by a quick line of onscreen text that pops up before the film’s end credits. But any negative headlines about Nyad’s career feel like moot points anyway for this movie’s purposes. If Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin cannot nail down the undisputed elements of Diana’s life, who is to say that they were equipped to tackle the more controversial ones? Just keep swimmin’.