A biopic of swimmer Diana Nyad has been in the works for a while, and it was finally brought to the screen by busy documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the co-directing husband-and-wife team who won an Oscar for the nail-biting Free Solo (2018).
Diana Nyad (her surname means ‘water nymph’ in Greek, as she says often) worked on the script for this one with Julia Cox, drawing from her book Find A Way, and while it naturally feels a bit contrived and even silly, stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster make it work anyway. Their scenes together crackle with warmth and edgy humour, and it’s more than obvious these two great actresses adore each other.
Archival and news footage fill us in on the earlier life of Diana and her amazing swimming feats, mostly in her 20s, with the real Diana seen being interviewed by Johnny Carson. We then cut forward to August 2010, where she’s played as a 60something by Bening, who hates the idea of getting older and drives her bestie Bonnie Stoll (Jodie) crazy with talk of getting back in the water.
Having failed to swim the 110 mile stretch from Cuba to Florida 30 or so years previously, Diana decides that she’ll do it again, much to Bonnie’s horror. And yet Bonnie joins her in what becomes a three-year journey that encompasses several attempts, a near-fatal run-in with box jellyfish, a near-drowning in a storm, painful rifts between these old pals, and more.
Long sequences of Annette/Diana swimming alone are enlivened by glimpses of her exhausted thoughts: flashbacks to her troubled childhood (where her surname was the less poetic ‘Sneed’); hallucinations of the Taj Mahal underwater; and her seemingly internal singalong to Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence.
Much has been made of this one’s failure to address the real Diana’s gift for exaggeration, and Rhys Ifans hams it up a little as the captain of the boat that keeps on accompanying her, but it hardly matters when Bening and Foster are onscreen. They certainly stop it becoming too water-logged, and add to the underlying message that, as Diana would say, “You’re never too old to follow your dreams.”
And then she’d say it again. And again.